Fish heads, fish heads, roly-poly fish heads

The jump from soup bowl to dinner plate

Jacob Richler
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Jimmy Jeong

Jimmy Jeong

The latest chapter in the adventurous western gourmand’s ongoing quest to catch up with the Third World has him singing a rather strange song.

Or has her singing one—for in this instance the diner seated at the counter of the John Dory Oyster Bar in Lower Manhattan was my wife. “Fish heads, fish heads, roly-poly fish heads,” she sang softly, serenading the morsel of Boston bluefish on the end of her fork. “Eat them up, yum!” And then—most uncharacteristically—she did.

To be sure, it was a fine fish head—about as irresistible as they come. Boston bluefish run large, so the head had been split lengthwise, very generously salted and then roasted. Its skin was crisp and the flesh beneath was moist and oily. The package was enriched by crisp-fried discs of sunchoke and brightened with a scattering of the pods and sprouts of sugar snap peas, and a good lashing of peppery olive oil. Chef April Bloomfield did not get her Michelin stars for nothing.

But neither is she responsible for this relatively new culinary trend of whole-fish, fang-to-fin dining. That bluefish head was on the John Dory menu in the spring. And it was around a year previous that I tucked into a full salmon head at a quirky downtown Montreal izakaya named Kazu. Kazuo Atkutsu’s guillotined Atlantic salmon was marinated in soy, grilled and dressed up with a festive splatter of taste and texture representing a good part of the repertoire of the Japanese pantry, and few add-ons besides. It was a sloppy but flavoursome dish.

Ex-Montreal chef Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly is turning out maple-and-soy salmon heads for New Yorkers at his popular new New York izakaya, Chez Sardine. And if you prefer your fish heads crunchy, you can get your fix in Vancouver—Trevor Bird’s Fable Kitchen in Kitsilano regularly serves up lightly battered head of Lois Lake-farmed steelhead with meaty collar attached, seasoned with ginger and soy and served in a butter-lettuce wrap with pickled carrots and cilantro. And instead of the customary half-head, each portion packs a full pair of them.

Fish heads are in. Supply and variety are assured. How and where the trend got started is less clear, but it has obviously been simmering for some time. In the stockpot mainly, if you look to Europe; in the curry pot in South Asia; and in similar, vibrantly spiced stews in East Asia.

Its jump from the soup bowl to the dinner plate seems, unsurprisingly, to have occurred in Japanese kitchens. Their chefs understand better than those of any other culture where to find the tastiest parts of a fish. Grilled fish collars are a Japanese staple, so it’s only natural that in difficult economic times, their curiosity and appetite should extend to the other side of the gills. Why our chefs copied theirs is a simpler matter still.

“Why throw anything out when it’s good?” chef Bird asked rhetorically. “I pay for the heads—why not serve them?”

Quite. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of lifting the tender, moist cheek from a salt-baked sea bass, enjoyed a fried cod’s tongue in Newfoundland or Norway, stripped a salty soy-drenched grilled hamachi collar or saved a meaty halibut cheek from its usual, sad fate of being turned into mock scallops, you will understand something of the culinary pleasures concealed about the heads of fish.

If you still need a bit of gearing up before tackling one whole in a wrap at Fable, be advised that the bitter-tasting gills and other nasty bits will have been excised, and that the deep fryer does a more than adequate tenderizing number on the cartilage. And if a whole head in a wrap seems to be too much for you, start small (with deep-fried white bait at your local pub) and then move on to the big ones prepared in such a way that you are free to merely extract the best bits.

They can’t play baseball, they don’t wear sweaters, they’re not good dancers, they don’t play drums. But they are cheap and they are tasty—eat them up, yum.