• Deep-fried snapper with green mango salad (Sharyn Cairns)Source: Sharyn Cairns
Serving fish whole at the table is an invitation to slow down and come together.
Bron Maxabella

23 Jun 2020 - 10:54 AM  UPDATED 25 Nov 2020 - 3:31 PM

Feasts and celebrations around the world star whole fish dishes that invite conversation and sharing. People across cultures prefer to serve the fish whole to get the best flavour, succulence and value. Important cultural rituals are attached to when and how fish is served and, of course, who gets to dine on the most prized parts of the fish. 

From head to tail in China 

The Cantonese word for ‘fish’ (yu 鱼) is a homophone for the word ‘riches’ (yu 余 ), leading many Chinese to equate fish with prosperity and surplus. Serving fish is, therefore, an important part of Chinese cooking, especially for special events. 

“When we serve [whole fish] at a festival or birthday party, it means we are 100% - we are together,” explains Eric Wong, from Sydney’s popular Golden Century Seafood Restaurant, referring to the tradition of placing the entire fish at the centre of the table for guests to help themselves. The guest of honour is served the most prized parts of the fish: the head and tail. 

“It means we have a very good beginning and then we have the very good last,” says Eric. 

The Chinese traditionally steam or braise whole fish. The whole snapper steamed with black beans, lemon and chilli is a classic example.

Salt and pepper crab

This a very traditional Hong Kong-Chinese-style of cooking crab in hot oil. It's a visually stunning dish and let your senses take you on a salt and pepper adventure.

Whole braised fish with spring onion blanket

This is one of those dishes that looks impressive on the table, but which takes very little effort to create. It's designed to be served as part of a banquet or shared meal.


Sardines, Portuguese-style 

Each year on 12 June, Lisbon parties through the night in celebration of St Anthony, the city’s patron saint. The only dish on the menu is sardines – grilled whole on impromptu grills by the side of every road and served simply with lemon and potatoes. These freshly grilled sardines are plump and firm, almost a different species to their canned, limp cousins. Grilled sardines, Portuguese-style are indeed a revelation. 

Crappit is not fit for polite Scottish society 

Many traditional Scottish whole-fish recipes have “long been banished from the tables of polite society” (as Scottish geologist Sir Archibald Geikie wrote in 1904). This includes the dish crappit heid (stuffed fish heads) a subsistence food that the poor would make, mixing oatmeal or barley with parts of the fish that were usually discarded, making a cheap and filling meal. Incidentally, the modern word “crap” comes from the ancient Scottish word “crappit” which meant to stuff or fill. By all accounts, crappit heid would have been well-named in modern times. 

Sgadan is buntàta (herring and potatoes) is a traditional, whole-fish recipe that is still enjoyed today. The whole herring is coated in oatmeal and shallow-fried – a bit like an oaty fish schnitzel. 

The modern word “crap” comes from the ancient Scottish word “crappit” which meant to stuff or fill. By all accounts, crappit heid would have been well-named in modern times. 

Fresh and balanced Thai fish 

In Thailand, the whole fish is grilled or deep fried and served balanced with the five flavours: sweet, sour, salty, creamy, spicy. The deep fried snapper with green mango salad dish, cooked up by Amy Chanta from Chat Thai, is a perfect example of this; with sugar, green mango and lime, fish sauce, and chilli flavouring the creamy fish. 

Amy explains that the Thai prefer to eat fish with the bone in, ensuring freshness and juciness. A dish mostly reserved for banquets is whole fish such as snapper, rubbed with herbs and spices then deep fried until the skin is crunchy, but the flesh remains meltingly tender.

Fish steamed with pandan and lemongrass (pla nung takrai)

Steaming is a brilliant way to deal with a large, whole fish, although you do need a very large saucepan and bamboo steam basket to accommodate it. This recipe will work equally as well with plate-sized fish (about 400 g each) and you don’t have to stick with snapper, either. Use bream, barramundi, perch, coral trout or any other white-fleshed fish you prefer. Just cook them for 12 or so minutes less.

Grilled scampi with sambal matah

This seafood number goes a long way with flavour.

Deep-fried whole fish

This recipe for Thai style deep-fried fish is a stunning dish for a shared banquet. The crunch of the crispy skin is a wonderful contrast to the delicate flesh of the snapper.

The French have got it in the bag 

The French are masters when it comes to cooking whole fish, treating it lightly and serving it simply. A classic cooking style is meuniere, which is French for “the miller’s wife.” Legend has it that the miller’s wife combined the bounty of fish from the stream that powered her husband’s mill with the mill’s flour to creating a cooking method that is still de rigueur. The whole fish is treated to a milk bath, followed by a light dusting of flour before pan frying. Once cooked through, remove from the heat then add a knob of butter to the pan and cook until nutty and frothy. Pour the butter over the rested fish along with a good squeeze of lemon and serve immediately. 

Legend has it that the miller’s wife combined the bounty of fish from the stream that powered her husband’s mill with the mill’s flour to creating a cooking method that is still de rigueur.

Another favourite fish cooking method is en papillote (or ‘in the bag’), as demonstrated by Jacques Reymond, L’Otel Gitan with his recipe for Rouget en papillote. The whole fish is wrapped with herbs and vegetables and baked, steaming the included flavours through the fish while retaining its moistness. 

Freshwater species go down in Africa

Despite its vast inner land, Africa is a continent of rivers and great lakes. Those without access to the Atlantic or Indian ocean have fished for freshwater fish for millennia. Kapenta – a mix of two small freshwater species native only to Lake Tanganyika – is a revered Zimbabwean example. Much of the fish is preserved by traditional methods of smoking, drying or salting, but fresh fish is still eaten by many. 

Baking fish whole that has been rubbed with spice paste and wrapped in banana leaves is a popular method of cooking, like this spiced barramundi in banana leaf with pickled radish. Grilling whole fish over low coals is another popular method of bringing out the flavour of larger fish, like bream or Malawian chambo. Once the fish has been picked clean at the table, the bones are used to make stock for another meal. 

African spiced fish with pap and silverbeet

This recipe was given to me from my mother-in-law when I got married. Her son loves it, so I wanted to get it right for him. The fish is marinated in ginger, garlic, peri peri paste and Moroccan spice. 

Whole marinated fish with nsima and ujeni ndiwo

In Malawi, barbecued fish is served with nsima – a Malawian staple traditionally made from maize flour. It becomes quite firm after cooking and is traditionally served as a kind of large patty cake. Malawians generally eat with their hands so this texture makes it easy to break off bits.

Maeve O'Meara is back in Food Safari Water at 7:30pm, Tuesdays on SBS, or catch-up on all episodes via SBS On Demand. Visit the program page for recipes, videos and more. 

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