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How to cook sweet and sour fish

Sweet and sour fish was once a popular street food in Malaysia at the hawker stores at a reasonable price. Subsequently, the Chinese restaurants took the opportunity to make a few twists, using better quality fish to transform it into a restaurant-style presentation with proper garnishing. 

This article will explain how to prepare the Malaysian Chinese style sweet and sour fish. It is different from other variants as the plum sauce is one of the primary ingredients, although tomato ketchup is also essential. Lastly, lemon juice is added to give it a refreshing aroma and flavor. 

Here are some key points to preparing sweet and sour fish. I suggest you take a moment to read through before jumping to the sweet and sour fish recipe below.

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Sweet and sour fish (Malaysian Chinese style) is popular street food in Malaysia at the hawker stores at a reasonable price. This article shows you how to prepare it with homemade sweet and sour sauce. The sauce is poured on a deep-fried fish and is best to serve with steamed rice.

1. Use fish that is suitable for deep-frying

This fish recipe is prepared with deep-fried whole fish served with the sauce cooked with tomato, potato, onion, and carrots. Other vegetables like green bell peppers and green onions are also suitable.

Fishes with form flesh are best for deep-frying, as they will not break easily. However, most of the lean fish with white flesh are suitable for frying. Some common examples are trout, sea bass, red snapper, tilapia, pomfret, and cod.

I use pomfret in this recipe, which has relatively firm flesh. Although the fishmonger has removed the gill and gutted the fish, there are still many scales, which is pretty dirty. Therefore, I still have to scale the fish with the knife, especially those underneath the fins. 

I also remove the pectoral fin and leave the dorsal and anal skin intact for presentation. 

Note: Chinese usually like to cook the whole fish. However, you can substitute it with any white fish fillets of your choice.  I did serve sweet and sour fish fillets when I worked in the restaurant.

2. The best way to remove the fishy odor of fish

Fresh fishes do not have much odor. However, it is not always possible to get fresh fish, and I prefer to reserve fresh fish for steaming and frying most frozen fish.  

If the fish has some unwanted/fishy smell, you can remove it by :

  • First, make sure to remove the silver film from the cavity altogether. It will leave a stinky smell if it remains on the fish while cooking.
  • Cut some thin slices of ginger plus a few sections of scallion. Mix them with a tablespoon of wine, squeeze out the juice, and then rub on the entire surface of the fish. Next, insert the squeezed ginger, ground white pepepr, scallion into the cavity of the fish and marinate for ten minutes.  Wine, ginger, and scallion are powerful ingredients to remove the fishy odor.

3. How to avoid the fish from sticking to the wok/pan

An easy way to prevent the fish from sticking to the pan is using a non-stick large skillet to fry the fish. However, sometimes it may not be possible to fry a large fish that cannot fit into the pan. Furthermore, the non-stick coating might not be chemically stable while applying high heat during deep-frying.

In this case, you can use a well-seasoned cast-iron wok to fry the fish. However, since most wok does not have a non-stick coating, the fish tend to stick to the surface while cooking, which can be frustrating.

Here are a few tips to endure the fish will not stick to the wok every time.

  • Use a well-seasoned cast-iron wok. If you sprinkle some water onto a well-seasoned wok, the water will forms droplets.  If the well-defined droplets are not formed, wipe the wok with a dry cloth, then apply a thin layer of oil on the surface and turn up the heat until it smokes. The hot oil will react with the iron to form a layer of patina on the surface, which prevents any food morsels from sticking in it. After that, clean the wok with water, and it is ready to fry the fish.
  • Add slightly more oil than usual to fry the fish over medium heat. I use three tablespoons of oil to fry the pomfret in this recipe.  
  • Make sure to dry the surface of the fish with paper towels. Do not move the fish in the first two minutes. You can safely move the fish around after the skin has crisp up after two minutes. At this time, the fish will naturally release from the wok surface.
  • Since the wok is spherical, it is essential to tilt the wok at least once to cook the fish evenly.

The cooking time is about three to four minutes over medium for each side to fry a medium-sized fish until golden brown. Remove from the wok when it turns golden on both sides of the fish and transfers to a serving plate.

Sweet and sour fish (Malaysian Chinese style) is popular street food in Malaysia at the hawker stores at a reasonable price. This article shows you how to prepare it with homemade sweet and sour sauce. The sauce is poured on a deep-fried fish and is best to serve with steamed rice.

4. Use vegetables with different shapes and colors

Tomato, potato, carrot, and onion are briefly cooked with the sauce and then poured over the fried fish on an oval plate.  Other favorite vegetables are cucumber and pineapple chunks.

Cut these vegetables into small bite-size pieces. I prefer to cook the potatoes and carrots separately as they take a longer time to cook through. 

5. Cook the vegetables with homemade sweet and sour sauce

The fried fish is served with a sweet and sour sauce made with tomato ketchup, chili sauce, Chinese plum sauce, and lemon juice. I have made a few portions of this sauce frozen for up to two to three months.  I use plum sauce instead of apple cider vinegar to make a little sour and add some tomato sauce, lemon juice, and chili sauce. Other than that, all you need is some brown sugar and salt. Unlike most Chinese sauces, no soy sauce is required to constitute the sweet and sour sauce.

Here is the video I suppose on Youtube to explain in detail how to prepare the sauce.  I have also included the sauce recipe in the notes section of the main recipe of the sweet and sour fish. It is also suitable to make sweet and sour pork.

  • I  use the leftover oil after frying the fish to stir-fry the vegetable briefly.  You may want to remove some oil if the amount is too much.
  • Heat the oil and stir fry the onion briefly.  When it turns aromatic, add the tomatoes and the pre-cooked potatoes and carrots, followed by the sweet and sour sauce and a cup of water to turn it into a thin sauce. 
  • Spoon the sauce onto the fish and garnish with some coriander leaves, and serve it with steamed rice.

Note: You can use the store-bought Asian sweet and sour sauce to simplify the cooking process.

Other related recipes

If you like this fish recipe, here are my picks for you some of the related recipes.

Try sweet and sour tofu if you like vegetarian food. This recipe is the spin-off from sweet and sour pork/fish and is a vegetarian dish with universal appeal to everyone.

General Tso’s chicken is the top-selling main dish in the restaurant I worked at previously. The preparation method is quite similar to sweet and sour fish- deep-fried and doused with the sauce. However, it is cooked with another set of seasonings, so the flavor is distinguishably different from this recipe.

sweet and sour fish square small

How to prepare sweet and sour fish (Malaysian Chinese style)

Yield: 2 servings
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes

Sweet and sour fish (Malaysian Chinese style) is popular street food in Malaysia at the hawker stores at a reasonable price. This article shows you how to prepare it with homemade sweet and sour sauce. The sauce is poured on a deep-fried fish and is best to serve with steamed rice.


Ingredients A(main)

Ingredients B (to marinate the fish)

  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground white pepper
  • 1 tbsp rice wine
  • 1 stalk of scallion
  • 1 inch length ginger, thinly sliced

Ingredients C (others)

  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Coriander leaves for garnishing


Fry the fish

  1. Clean the fish, remove the scales, pectoral fins, gills, and the stinky silver film. Pat dry.
  2. Make a few slits on both sides of the fish. Then, season the fish with salt and pepper.
  3. Wet the ginger and scallion with the wine, then squeeze to extract the juice. Rub the wine and juice mixture on both sides of the fish.
  4. Stuff the ginger and scallion into the cavity of the fish. Marinate for ten minutes.
  5. Remove the ginger and scallion. Pat dry the fish. Coast with cornstarch and dust off the excess.
  6. Heat 3 tbsp the oil in the wok until smoking hot. Turn off the heat and place the skin into the oil. Switch on the stove again to medium heat.
  7. Do not move the fish during the first two minutes. Tilt the wok once to ensure even cooking of the whole fish.
  8. After four minutes, turn the fish to fry the other side.
  9. Remove the fish, drain.

Prepare the sauce

  1. Boil the potatoes and carrots until soft.
  2. Remove the excess oil from the wok. Leave only 1 tbsp and heat it.
  3. Fry the onion until aromatic.
  4. Add the tomato and the pre-cooked potato and carrot.
  5. Add the sweet and sour sauce, plus about 1 cup of water. 
  6. When it comes to boil again, spoon the sauce and vegetables on the fish.
  7. Garnish with coriander leaves. Serve.


Recipe for the sweet and sour sauce


80g tomato ketchup, 30g chili sauce, 30g Chinese plum sauce, 2 tsp lemon juice, 1 tsp sugar, optional, 1/2 tsp salt


1. Measure all the ingredients (except lemon juice) accurately.

2. Heat up in a small pot until the sugar has dissolved.

3. Let the sauce cools down.

4. Squeeze the lemon juice and remove the seeds by catching them with a wire mesh strainer.

5. Pour the lemon juice into the sauce and mix well.

6. Portion the sauce and store equal amounts in plastic containers, which are freezer-friendly.

Nutrition Information:
Yield: 2 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 567Total Fat: 14gSaturated Fat: 3gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 10gCholesterol: 143mgSodium: 1461mgCarbohydrates: 42gFiber: 4gSugar: 12gProtein: 69g

This data was provided and calculated by Nutritionix on 7/19/2021


Sunday 27th of February 2022

This sweet and sour sauce seems delicious and easy to make. Thank you I'll try this method next time. Is it possible to find out where I can buy tofu in Bloemfintein in the Free State South Africa Thank you Mama Judy (I'm 69yrs old)

KP Kwan

Sunday 27th of February 2022

Hi Mama Judy, I really would like to help but I have no idea where to get it at where you live. I am living in Malaysia :) KP Kwan

KP Kwan

Monday 19th of July 2021

Hi, this is KP Kwan. I am happy to see you in this comment area as you have read through my recipe. I am pleased to reply to any questions and comments as soon as possible.


Tuesday 20th of July 2021

@KP Kwan, Thanks for sharing the recipe Mr Kwan. This recipe really brings back memories of those days when we use to order it whenever we go out to eat. Those days, this sweet and sour fish was a popular item besides the sweet and sour pork.

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