Grilled Whole Fish Stuffed with Herbs and Chilies
Grilled Whole Fish Stuffed with Herbs and Chilies

Stuff bland, meaty tilapia with fresh herbs and chilies before putting it on the grill, and you’ve got fish full of tender flavor and a crispy, crackling skin.

In the US, summer barbecue season is synonymous with burgers and hot dogs. But now that I’ve had enough of Americana, I turn to another source of grilling inspiration: the chefs living along China’s borders with Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, who grill year-round as their primary way of cooking.

This super easy, tasty grilled fish comes from China’s Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Region, a small subtropical area just a few kilometers from Laos and Myanmar.

The result is far greater than the sum of its parts, a wonderful dish for a weekend BBQ or to serve up with friends when you want something that’s easy to make but looks impressive.

Select and buy whole fish

Buying a whole fish may be daunting for anyone who has never cooked a specimen directly, but your local fish shop or well-stocked market can make the process easier.

Start by judging freshness and avoid anything with a really fishy smell, dark eyes, or brown indistinct gills.

The fish should have:

  • Firm Flesh
  • Moist, light eyes – not dark or very cloudy
  • A mild, slightly salty smell.
  • The gills should look red and be clearly visible.

If you can, buy your fish from a shop with a knowledgeable fishmonger behind the counter and ask when it was caught. A shop where many people are buying fish is also a good sign as there is a lot of sales. (I personally prefer to buy my fish from a nearby Chinese supermarket, which has a very busy fish counter.)

Next, ask the fishmonger to gut and scale the fish for you and cut the fish open so you can stuff not only the belly but the tail as well; Some stores may even have a chart you can point to to indicate what you’re looking for.

Alternatively, you can ask them to smash the fish so that it is sliced ​​open from the head to the end of the tail, but the two sides are still connected. (If you have a really good fishmonger, they can cut it up the back instead of through the belly, which preserves the tender belly meat.)

If you’re buying a fish that’s scaled and gutted but not completely cut open (meaning only cut down the center of the stomach), simply use a sharp knife to carefully lengthen the opening in the belly so that the front of the body and the fleshy part of the tail should also be split lengthwise, then make the split deeper so that it reaches the spine of the fish.

Best fish for this recipe

This recipe is traditionally made with tilapia, which farmers in China often grow in small ponds on their farms.

The fish is ideal because its flesh is meaty but very mild in flavor and it absorbs the scent of the herbs as it cooks.

However, this method also works well with Red Snapper. If you decide to snapper, you may want to use kitchen scissors to snip off the edges of the fish’s fins, which can be quite sharp.

How to grill fish with a grill cage

When it comes to cooking a whole fish, the key to easy grilling is investing in a grill basket that folds over both sides of the fish to hold it together and allows it to be easily turned side to side.

Grilling baskets come in a variety of styles – there are open-topped baskets that prevent vegetables from falling into the coals, and very shallow baskets that are good for thin fish.

The fish sticks to the basket while grilling. You can oil the inside of the basket to keep it from sticking, but you still need to be very careful when removing the fish, using a chopstick or other narrow tool to push the mesh away from the fish skin as you open the basket.

If you want more tips and tricks for preparing fish on the grill, we have an amazing guide that tells you everything you need to know about grilling whole fish, fish fillets and fish steaks.

Prepare fish stuffed with herbs and chillies in the oven

If you don’t have a grill, you can still prepare this dish by roasting the fish in a hot oven.

The result won’t be quite the same, as you’ll miss some of the smoky flavor that the grill produces and only one side of the fish will be crispy, but the flavors of the herbs and chillies will still come through nicely.

  • Prepare the fish in the same way as for the grill.
  • Preheat an oven to 450°F.
  • Place the fish on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper to prevent it from sticking.
  • Bake about 25 minutes. When the fish is cooked through, brush with a little more oil and place under the grill until the skin on top blisters and begins to brown. 2-3 minutes; Because different broilers can produce different levels of heat (and some racks are closer to the flame than others), you should start checking the fish after the 2 minute mark.

How to check fish for doneness

There are several ways to see if your fish is fully cooked before removing it from the grill basket.

  • According to government food safety agencies, fish should be cooked at a temperature of 145°F. You can use an instant-read thermometer to measure doneness.
  • You can also check doneness by sticking the tines of a fork or the tips of some chopsticks into the flesh of the fish and twisting them; If the flesh that emerges is opaque and flaky, you’re good to go.

Swaps and subs for seasoning whole fish

While the recipe below includes some of my favorite ways to flavor this dish, you can stuff fish with a variety of herbs and chilies.

In some parts of southwest China (where this recipe originated from), chefs alternate preparing this dish with just cilantro and some spicy Thai chilies, and fill it with more complex pastes full of chilies and herbs. Some fun combinations are:

  • Chopped cilantro and sliced ​​Thai chilies (aka bird’s-eye chilies)
  • Lemongrass (crushed with the flat part of a cleaver or knife) and sliced ​​chillies
  • Coriander, sawtooth herb, rau ram and sliced ​​chillies
  • Fresh oregano, sliced ​​onions, and sliced ​​lemons (for a more Greek flavor)
  • Fresh oregano, sliced ​​garlic, and rehydrated dried pasilla chiles or chillies de árbol (for a Mexican-inspired flavor)

If you want a little more flavor and spice, you can also mix some ground chili or chili flakes into the vegetable oil along with the salt and use it to add flavor to the skin of the fish as it cooks.

Make it a meal

This recipe is portioned for Chinese-style serving, with two to three sides to complement the meal. In southwest China, this dish is often served with dishes reminiscent of Lao and Thai foods, including pineapple sticky rice (this pineapple fried rice is an easy substitute) and green papaya salad. I also often serve it with a quick Chinese cucumber salad. Cooked Chinese vegetables, such as fried long beans or Sichuan eggplant, would also work well.

More grilled fish recipes for this summer

For a thick fish like tilapia or snapper, look for a grill cage with 1 inch thick sides, like the large Ordora Portable Fish Grill Basket, which has 1.2 inch sides, or Asher Grill’s slightly narrower grill basket. (These cost around $20, but you can also find cheaper versions in some Asian markets that specialize in cooking tools.)

  • Grilled trout with dill and lemon
  • Grilled branzino with rosemary vinaigrette
  • Grilled whole salmon with pickled lemon relish
  • Grilled swordfish steaks with lemon and oregano
  • Simply grilled salmon

Grilled whole fish filled with herbs and chilies

preparation time
20 minutes

cooking time
40 minutes

total time
60 minutes

4 servings

Your tilapia should be cleaned, scaled, and sliced ​​open so you have a large cavity in the fish’s body to fill with herbs and chilies.

Special equipment: Grill cage and pastry brush


  • 1/4 Cup vegetable oilplus more for oiling the grill cage

  • 3 teaspoon kosher saltdivided

  • 1 (2 lb) all tilapiacleaned, scaled and cut open along the abdomen or butterfly

  • 2 spring onionsRoot ends removed, halved lengthwise and crosswise

  • 1 large handful coriander (Above 1 packed up Cup), leaves and stems

  • 2 red Fresno chili pepperscut crosswise into thin slices


  1. Preheat the gills and prepare the grill cage:

    Heat a charcoal or gas grill until you have hot coals or high heat.

    For a charcoal grill: Heat a chimney full of coals until they’re gray with ash, then stack them in the center of the grill.

    For a gas grill: Turn the heat up to high, close the lid and let the grill heat up for about 20 minutes while you cook the fish. The temperature should reach around 400°F.

    Oil the grill cage all over with a pastry brush or a clean kitchen towel. Set aside until ready to use.

  2. Make the flavored oil:

    In a small jar or cup, combine the vegetable oil and 2 teaspoons of salt. Set aside for later use.

  3. Season and fill the fish:

    Season and rub the remaining 1 teaspoon salt on the inside and outside of the fish. Place half of the scallions on the inside of the fish cavity, garnish with cilantro and chilies, top the stack with the remaining scallions and close the fish. Place the fish in the oiled grill cage and close the cage.

  4. Grill fish:

    Grill the fish over direct heat for 5 minutes, then turn the grill basket over and grill the other side for another 5 minutes.

    Use a pastry brush to brush the fish with the prepared oil (pat the oil through the grill cage), then grill the fish for an additional 30 minutes, turning the fish about every five minutes, adding oil with each turn. to ensure that all of the oil is used up.

    When done, the skin of the fish should be partially black and crispy, and the meat should be cooked through.

    To check doneness, insert the tips of two chopsticks or the tines of a fork into the meat (while the fish is still in the grill cage); it should be scaly and opaque. If the flesh does not flake easily, grill the fish for an additional 10 minutes, turning once.

  5. Taking fish out of the grill cage:

    When the fish is cooked, carefully open the grill cage; the metal can stick to the fish’s skin, so you’ll want to go slow, using your chopsticks or a butter knife to separate them if necessary.

  6. Surcharge:

    Serve the fish whole and let people slide a piece off the side without taking too many bones, or eat it from a shared plate in the center of the table. When one side of the fish is done, flip it over to serve the other side of the fish. (Anyone can also scoop out some of the wilted herbs and chili from inside the fish if they wish.)

nutritional information (per serving)
359 calories
13g Fat
2g carbohydrates
60g protein
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Hello everybody, Even if you're limited on time and money, I believe you can prepare wonderful food with everyday products. All you have to do is cook cleverly and creatively!