Fish Tales or Ama Sua’s claypot steamed WHOLE fish with lemongrass

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Trout, brook
Credit: Knepp, Timothy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

I know, I know, you don’t like your dinner staring back at you. But please heed my one impassioned request: don’t wimp out and get fish fillets.

Before you get yourself into a tizzy, hear me out.

There are so many reasons to forgo floppy fillets and reach for a whole fish with its head and tail fin intact–the number one reason being flavor. I truly believe that fish tastes so much better cooked on the bone (no bias here). The gelatin-rich backbone is an excellent heat conductor and the fatty skin seals the moisture in, producing sweet-tasting flesh with all the natural flavor of fish and a cushiony texture unsurpassed by any ol’ fillet. 

Whole fish makes for a beautiful and dramatic presentation the table. If you or your dinner companions are a little queasy, remove the eyes when cooked and stuff the sockets with a few sprigs of parsley.

By cooking the entire fish, you won’t be wasting an ounce of gorgeous flesh and you’ll be able to savor the cheeks, delicious morsels considered by many cultures the finest part of the fish. (Side note: In Singapore, we eat fish head curry and fish cheeks are all you get! Oh, and some people enjoy sucking on the eye balls too.)

And of course, cooking a whole fish is a breeze (just be sure to ask your fishmonger to scale, gut and clean the fish first!). Simple seasonings–salt, lemon juice, slivers of ginger, or olive oil–are all you need.

No bones about it 

OK, so we’ve discussed all the wonderful reasons fish should be cooked whole. You must be thinking, what about those darned spindly fish bones?

They’re really not that much of a nuisance, honest! All it takes is a short lesson in fish anatomy. Fish have a simple, two-dimensional bone structure and there are fish that lift off the bone more easily than others after cooking: black sea bass, striped bass, flounder, catfish, rockfish, red snapper, trout, etc. just to name a few.

When ready to eat, use a knife and fork, or even a spatula, to lift the fillet in sections from the flat bone structure–gently please. After the top side of the fish has been removed, do not flip the fish over! It’s said to be bad luck and if you were a fisherman or a sailor, your boat would capsize. Instead, lift the backbone (I’d leave the head and tail behind to pick at but that’s up to you) to reveal the bottom fillet.

There still might be shards left behind, mind you, so it behooves your tongue be diligent. If you do get a bone in the mouth, the easiest thing to do is remove it discreetly with your thumb and forefinger. (If anyone else would shed some light on fish etiquette, please enlighten us.)

What? Now, I have to buy the fish? 

Now you’re all geared up to cook fish en tout, but ack … cooking a whole fish means buying a whole fish! Never fear, whole fish is brimming with freshness indicators.

  • Fresh fish doesn’t smell fishy. It should smell subtly of the water it came from, whether river or sea.
  • The gills should be shiny, bright red, and odorless.
  • The eyes should be glossy with a clear sheen. After a couple of post-caught days, they cloud over.
  • Fresh fish should be firm, with flesh that springs back when touched. Any mushiness in the body of the fish is usually a sign of age or that it was bruised during netting or transportation.
  • Make sure skin is free of any dark blemishes. The tail should not be dried out, brittle or curled.

That’s the end of “Whole Fish 101” and we are now ready for Pranee’s dish. Simple to prepare and oh-so healthy, this dish was a favorite of Pranee’s grandmother, Ama Sua. True to her frugal nature, she would only use the discarded leaf ends of the lemongrass to line the claypot, saving the rest for other dishes.


Here’s my mum’s pretty claypot

You have to admit it’s a pretty innovative way to steam fish: the lemongrass lattice raises the fish from the bottom of the pot, preventing it from sticking as well as flavoring and scenting it.

Steamed fish with lemongrass in claypot (Pla Nueng Morh Din)


Pranee didn’t make cuts into the trout because it was pretty slender. But if you’d like to ensure your fish cooks evenly–i.e. that the thinner tail end doesn’t cook before the thicker middle–make two diagonal bone-deep slashes into the broadest part of the fish on each side, about two inches apart.

Any white fish with natural fat such as halibut and true cod would work well in this recipe. Claypots are relatively inexpensive and are available at most Asian grocery stores. You can also experiment with other steaming methods I’ve outlined here.

Tip: Allocate 3/4 to 1 pound of fish per person. If you’d like to steam two fish (I wouldn’t put more than this in the steamer at one time), just use the same amount of lemongrass.

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 2 servings

1 1-1/2 to 2 pound whole trout, head and tail intact, scaled, gutted and cleaned
4 stalks lemongrass
1 tablespoon sea or kosher salt
1/2 cup water or more as needed

Optional: Lay fish flat on a cutting board. At thickest part of the body, make two diagonal bone-deep cuts perpendicular to backbone, about two inches apart. Turn fish over, and repeat.

Remove about 1-1/2 inches from the hard root end of the lemongrass and the leaf end leaving about 6 inches of the center. Smash lemongrass with a meat pounder or a large knife to release the essential oils.

Fold one stalk into half and rub it all over the fish, inside and out. Discard stalk. Sprinkle salt and rub into the fish, inside and out.

Tear each of the 3 remaining lemongrass stalks into 4 strips. Lay lemongrass in a grid pattern at the bottom of the claypot.


Place fish on top. Tuck in the tail if it doesn’t fit.


Add enough water to reach bottom layer of lemon grass without touching the fish.


Cover with lid and bring water to a boil over medium heat.

Once steam appears from the hole in the lid, about 5 minutes, check water level and add more water if necessary. Steam for another 8 to 10 minutes, checking on the water level at least once. At the thickest part of the fish, lift the flesh with a fork and if it separates easily from the bone, it’s done.  


Serve in claypot or carefully remove the fish with two spatulas onto a plate. Spoon liquid from plate over fish before serving.


Aunty Pearlie’s Cantonese-Style Steamed Cake

Aunty Pearlie is not related to me by blood; she is, in fact, my friend Ivy’s mother. In Asian culture, we call our friends’ parents “aunty” and “uncle” as a form of respect. This was a concept my husband, let’s call him hungry_ hobbit (yes, he loves Tolkien!), could not fathom. When we were dating, I explained this cultural quirk to him and he asked if he could call my parents by their first names instead. I spoke with my parents and they agreed, seeing as he was American and all. The funny thing was, hungry_hobbit was still uncomfortable since he knew my parents were not used to their childrens’ friends (let alone boyfriends) calling them by their first names, so he ended up not calling them anything at all! Their conversations went something like this:

Mum: Good morning, *hungry_hobbit*. How are you?

Hungry_hobbit: Hello err (pause) … I’m fine.

Mum: Have you eaten, *hungry_hobbit*? (Our lives center around food so we always ask this question when we greet each other)

Hungry_hobbit: No. Have you and ermm … **mumble mumble** … (his head nodding toward my dad) had breakfast?

And so the conversation would go …

Thankfully, now that hungry_hobbit has settled into being the perfect son-in-law, he calls them comfortably by their first names.

Anyway, back to Aunty Pearlie. Aunty Pearlie is originally from Hong Kong, and moved to the U.S. in 1967. Her parents owned a butcher shop in Hong Kong which employed 13 employees. Together with her and her 11 siblings, plus her parents and a grandmother and grandaunt, there was a lot of cooking to be done in her household. (Yes, the employees were fed too!) Thankfully, they had two maids who cooked up two big meals a day and Aunty Pearlie observed them with a keen eye in the kitchen. Considering the family business, there was always a gamut of meat to choose from: chicken, duck, pork, goose, fish, etc.

Aunty Pearlie was visiting Seattle from Ohio and I asked her to share some of her favorite recipes. She obliged and I now have her recipes for sweet and sour pork, minus the glow-in-the-dark sauce served at many Chinese American restaurants, cold white chicken (both to come!) and this Cantonese-style steamed cake below. It’s a very simple recipe and while Auntie Pearlie dictated, I went through the motions. I used a stock pot with a steamer insert but for other ideas and tips on steaming see my previous post: My rise as steam queen.

Cantonese-style steamed cake

This sponge cake is quite like an angel food cake but uses whole eggs instead of just the whites. Sometimes you can find it at dim sum restaurants as ma lai go. Aunty Pearlie likes to make it in a round pan because she says, “The Chinese believe round means smooth for everyone. Square has sharp edges which means stubborn.” Try it with whipped cream, the way Aunty Pearlie’s grandkids like it!

Important: do not leave the batter to stand, the steamer must be ready when the batter is done.

Makes: 8 servings

4 eggs

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

Fill the bottom half of your steamer with water, cover and bring to boil over high heat. Turn down heat to medium.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, beat eggs and sugar with a hand mixer until all the sugar dissolves. About 2 minutes. Test with your fingers to see if any granules remain.

Add flour and beat until pale and fluffy, about 4 to 5 minutes. Pour batter into an 8″ round glass casserole or soufflé dish.

Place in steamer rack. Cover the top of the steamer with a kitchen towel (to catch condensing water droplets). Place the lid on top andsteam for 20 to 25 minutes or until cake has puffed up and surface looks like it’s covered with moon craters. Insert a knife into the middle and it should come out clean.

Cool completely before cutting into slices.

My rise as steam queen

me in hole

This is me. This is the hole I made in the bottom of my mom’s steamer pot. And I’m looking at you right through it. You’d think it would be pretty hard to bore a hole through metal. Think again. When it comes to me in the kitchen, anything is possible.

I was trying out my mum’s recipe for an Indonesian cake called kue lapis sagu (literally layered cake; more on this later), and like many Asian cakes, it’s steamed not baked. Here is a picture of my mum’s trusty steamer before aforementioned hole.  It’s a traditional contraption that I’ve also seen in many Asian kitchens. Sadly, it has now been relegated to the garbage can.


But what can you do? Some novice experiences proceed without a hitch while others … well, I’m sure anyone who has been experimental in the kitchen can identify.

I hate to admit steaming is not new to me. My mum steamed lots of foods (fish, rice bundles, sweets, etc.) when I was growing up, and I can still recall helping her make cupcakes when I was wee high. But I rarely steamed anything in my own kitchen B.C. (before cookbook). Looking on the bright side, this mishap was an excellent lesson in the do’s and don’ts of steaming. The number one “do” being “do check on the water level at regular intervals to ensure it doesn’t run dry and burn a hole right through the bottom of your pot.” (One caveat though, you need to make sure the liquid doesn’t touch the bottom of the food being steamed.)

And mind this very important note I gave to myself: the release of a constant stream of steam doesn’t mean the water level in the pot is sufficiently high (yes, that was my downfall.) I have since recovered from my first steaming fiasco and steaming has become quite a fixture in my cooking repertoire as I have discovered it is a very popular cooking method across all Asian cuisines. And why not? Steaming is fast and easy, healthy, and allows food to remain moist and flavorful. Thanks to some wonderful teachers, you can now call me steam queen!

So far, I have learned to make:

Steamed sponge cake

 sponge cake



Egg crepe rolls

egg crepe rolls in wok 


Suman (coconut sticky rice cakes)

suman in wok

Now, you don’t have to go out and buy a fancy three tiered aluminum steamer like my mum’s. You can easily steam most foods with an inexpensive bamboo steamer, a stockpot with a pasta insert, or an asparagus steamer.

Or you could experiment with some of these common implements you might already have lying around in your kitchen:

  • Use a roasting pan with a rack and a lid. Line rack with foil. Poke holes in the foil and place rack in roasting pan.
  • Use a collapsible vegetable steaming rack and place in a skillet or wok.
  • Place an oven-proof bowl upside down in a wok or other pan. Place a plate on top.

 However, if you would like to invest in one–especially if you’re planning on steaming often, these nifty steamers are easy to use and hold a lot–they are available in Chinatown for about $50.  

I know ’cause I had to buy my mum another one just the other day.