Fish heads… When I hear these two simple words, memories of my childhood simply come flooding back like the flowing Victoria fall. No, I’m kidding! Fish heads have unfortunately never been a part of my pleasant childhood remembrance! Although fish heads are commonly prepared along with the fish in Eastern cuisines(no fish heads discrimination in these cultures, or simply stronger stomachs?), they aren’t as commonly eaten as you may think.
(Thai staple side dish: deep-fried whole mackerel, steamed/fresh veggies and the delicious spicy and tangy shrimp chili paste. Mackerel heads are an exception. They are the most delicious and flavourful part of the fish to eat for Thai people. This could be because of the creaminess of the head, and concentrated amount of oil there, from deep-frying)
Before I’d turned ‘quasi-vegan'(explanation here http://obsessivenutritioncompulsive.wordpress.com/about/) I was never a ‘fish head’ foodie. In nearly all Thai/Asian households hides a ‘Fish head foodie’. This is an individual who would be particularly excited about the fish head and tail that has remained on the dish.
This all changed when I became a ‘quasi-vegan’. Fresh off the boat from pescetarianism, I craved salmon, my favourite nutritious and fat-lowering omega-3 rich(skinny chicks’ favourite food) animal-food. A self-biased idea came to me that eating fish heads isn’t the same as eating ‘the fish’ because it’s not like the fish has been killed for its head. The head is nothing but the by-product(Offal lovers are getting carried away by this) of the fish industry. I’d be paying the fish respect, in fact, by not ignoring its head, but also consuming it. This epiphany all happened while crunching on salmon jaw bones. After my little epiphany, I made the point of reducing my fish intake(previously, I’d mostly only eat salmon fillet for fish because other fish are just not even delicious unless slathered in gallons of sweet and spicy sauce or deep-fried in fish n’ chips) and also other seafood, while upping my fish head consumption to suppress my cravings for the ocean animals. I also ate the fish heads for their delicious, creamy taste, the nutritious omega-3 fatty acids and protein. Gradually, from the comfort of salmon heads, I began to venture beyond home base by trying out different fish heads like snapper and blue cod(These are the only three I can find in local supermarkets).
Thanks to fish heads, I’ve been able to become animal-free,(except for fish head, and the occasional eggs) and transformed into a ‘fish head foodie’.
Now, don’t be put off by the look of fish heads and think that it’s barbaric or something. In fact, not eating fish heads is a way for you to feel less guilty about eating fish(or you may simply have found them gross). Eating fillet is instead, barbaric in a way, because the fish have been trapped to be sold to fish consumers like you! Two of the fish recipes I’ll be sharing doesn’t require you to ‘eat off’ the head, but you can simply separate out the bountiful meat and eat this separately as fillet.
Here are my uberly easy fish head recipes with three different kinds of fish(snapper, blue cod and salmon) along with nutritional guidelines and eating tips:
Snapper heads in where I live are $5.99 or sometimes $4.99 per kg(not an import). They are about $8 per fillet. If you are a good fish-chooser, you’ll be able to get a good snapper head with more meat than in a fillet i.e. at least 2 fillet servings for $11.
Super easy and simple snapper head recipe, only takes about 5 seconds to prepare.
Ginger and chili snapper head(Thai style):
one large snapper head, or two small snapper heads(around size of a palm, if it was my palm they’d be the size of mandarins), washed and cleaned
1/2 cup of thinly sliced fresh ginger root
2 Thai chili(or just whatever kind of chili that’s spicy enough for your liking), chopped
1/2 cup of chopped frozen lemongrass
Heat the water in your steamer at high heat until it starts to boil. Arrange your snapper head on a plate in a steamer rack. Place chopped lemon grass underneath the snapper head, around it and on top. Place the chili underneath the snapper head so the spiciness soak through that way. Arrange sliced ginger on top of the snapper head. The steaming process will bring the ginger flavor down into the snapper head.
Steam on medium-high heat for 15-20 minutes or until the meat is well cooked.
Method 2(oven, if you don’t own a steamer)
Instead of on a plate, you will be arranging your snapper head in a heatproof glass bowl(like a casserole bowl), the same way as in the previous method. Boil some water, pour this onto a large cake tin or pan, enough to come about 1 and a half inches up the sides. Place your glass bowl, with the snapper head inside, in the tin/pan. This will be your bain marie for steam-cooking snapper head in the oven.
Steam-cook in the oven for 40 minutes or until the meat is well cooked.
An option is to steam the fish head along with your favourite veggies i.e. my broccolini which I’d tossed in the last 3 minutes. No need for double cooking. All in 1.
In this recipe, the ginger root acts as a seasoning and helps, along with the lemongrass and chili to reduce the fishiness of snapper.
(chopped lemongrass, they can also be bought frozen from Asian supermarkets looking something like this:)
This seasoning combination is also very easy to throw in together, if you happen to have something like frozen lemongrass in hand like I do. Other easy combinations include: ginger-Chinese pickled vegetable-tomatoes-onions(Chinese style), or you can also make soups out of them with the same recipes.
Here are photos of some snapper head soups out there:
Warning! Snapper heads are very ‘scale-y’ unlike blue cod or salmon, which are both soft-fleshed cold water fish. Therefore, you will not be eating off the head much like blue cods and salmon, where you can pretty much eat nearly the entire head. Try to avoid the exterior of the fish head. You will need to pull your cooked fish head apart(like carving turkey?) and eat the various internal bits which are full of meat. In soups, the scales will sink to the bottom of the pot, so try not to stir them up while you’re helping yourself to a bowl of savory goodness.
This is one serving of snapper head ‘fillet’. I’d probably gotten three of these servings from a big fish head. Aim for the neck meat near the back of the head which used to be next to the snapper’s fin. Note how meaty and full of protein it is(the fish uses the top part of its abdomen or neck extensively in swimming and navigating hence the meatiness). The texture is almost like chicken. This type of meat is almost unable to be found in snapper fillet which are usually taken from the soft abdomen and stomach region.
You can simply pull out a large bone from the snapper head that has a lot of meat still intact and eat it like a chicken drumstick(kind of like in the picture shown above).
(WARNING FOLLOWING PHOTOS MAY DISTURB SOME INDIVIDUALS)
Another piece of meat you can only find in snapper’s heads are the ‘internal head meat’. This piece of meat is sweet, and has a distinctive and delicious flavour similar to those of liver’s. Fans of liver or liver pate will enjoy this(It actually tastes more like liver pate because of its texture). I’m not sure what part of the fish this is… I’m guessing it’s some kind of arteries, etc. But all innards are pretty good for you.
Be aware of teeth and gills around the innards area! The gills look soft, but trust me, they’re not. They are mini micro-combs used by fish to filter out particles/salt in ocean water. Don’t worry, after much handling, they’re completely from salt and sediments.
There’s not a lot of information on the nutrition of ‘Australasian’ snapper(or silver sea bream elsewhere) but we all know that all fish are nutritious(apart from if they’ve been deep fried in batter). They are the best source of protein, offering more protein : calorie than any other animal meat i.e. chicken, pork. These snappers are probably technically not oily fish, but the heads somehow oozed out quite some amount of oil, comparable to those of cods. Don’t worry, this is good news because fish oil is all filled with fat soluble vitamins like A, D, E, K and a bit of Omega-3. The fish head innards that I’ve discovered probably contain an amount of cholesterol(so those of you on low cholesterol, be aware), but would also be rich in Vitamin Bs(referencing to liver which tastes very similar).
$4.99 per kg. These are of better values than snappers because the heads are much lighter(i.e. less dense bone) and therefore more flesh per pound. I bought two little heads(about size of a fist each) which added up to only around $1.50 = the same amount of meat as one fillet of cod.
(Wrapped in foil because was cooked in oven. I wonder if anyone does the same as I do; I always put foil under any food I’d bake in the oven because I detests scrubbing bits that stick to the pan, great for gaining arm muscles)
This delicious recipe is by far the easiest and quickest, even a baby can do it(putting aside the fact that they can’t really walk up to the bench yet). There is basically only one ingredient in this recipe, which is the fish heads.
Oven-baked blue cod recipe:
Two blue cod heads(or as many as you please), cleaned and washed
Preheat oven to 200 Celsius. Line a baking pan with aluminium foil to prevent the goodness oil escaping(I’ll also tell you the awesome advantage of using foil later on). Bake for 35 minutes, then partially cover with the aluminium foil and bake for another 15 minutes for a crisper, deep-fried-like texture.
The reason why you don’t need any flavouring for this recipe is because blue cod heads are already really flavourful in itself. It’s got saltiness of the sea that’s sunk into its skin, and oily and fattiness that oozes from its flesh. The only downside is that it smells pretty fishy(but doesn’t taste very fishy though, good for you but not for non-eaters) so something to accompany your meal would be a wedge of lemon, although I myself didn’t really need it, because I didn’t have the patience to wait before devouring my fish and wasn’t put off my any fishiness.
Here’s my blue cod head, disassembled. I shall give a short description of what each components are, what can be eaten and what can’t.
Starting from the top right, clockwise; this is the no-eat pile. Unlike salmon(more on this below), cod skull is inedible. Other members of this pile are the fins(crisp enough can be crunched on) and jaw bones. Next to this pile is the meaty pile. This is all the meat from one small blue cod head(They’re the meat that lines the inside of the fish’s head). The texture is similar to snapper but more moist and less tough. Moving along is the famous ‘fish cheeks’. Chinese people fight over fish cheeks at dinner tables. They are soft, fleshy parts of the fish, softer than fillets and slightly sweet tasting. As a bonus, you get two! On to the last pile. This is the soft parts pile, which include the fatty layer of skin of the fish and the eyes. The eyes are edible and if cooked long enough, the lenses become like light and crispy chips. The skin is just chewy, delicious and full of goodness(The skin may be a more concentrated source of mercury, if there is poisoning in your waters, so avoid this part of the head). If you can’t stand the oiliness, a good way to counteract this would be to have a sour and spicy dipping sauce as a side, or a lemon wedge.
Easy spicy and sour sauce recipe:
1 tsp of water
1 tbsp of vinegar or lemon juice
1 tsp of soy sauce
1/2 tsp of chopped chili or chili powder
Cod liver oil are sold expensively as dietary supplements, so there’s no question that blue cods are a rich sources of nutrients, albeit less concentrated than the pills. The oil you see oozing out from your fish would be mostly omega-3, and a minimum of saturated fats or cholesterol. So, these heads are actually moderately high in calorie. Omega-3 fats also help lower your bad cholesterol and control your weight. The eyes and other goopy bits of the fish may be quite high in fat and calorie, but contains a very concentrated source of good fatty acids.
My all-time favourite(Kanye West moment, best fish head of all-time! All-time I say!) fish head. The soft, delicious flesh and distinctive, sweet flavour is just irresistible. $5.99 per kg. Three heads = $3.50-ish
(Small bowl for bones, and sour chili sauce for dipping. Didn’t even use it though. The fish is already packed full of flavour)
Thai Tom-yum salmon head soup recipe:
3 salmon heads(if more than this, your soup will get really oily), washed and rinsed
1 onion, sliced
3 litres of water or fills 3/4 way up the pot
(Thai Tom-yum seasonings)
1/2 cup of sliced galangal root
1/2 cup of lemon grass pieces
1/2 cup of fresh kaffir leaves
3 Thai chilies, chopped in halves
Soy sauce and salt to your adjustments
Boil the water on high heat. Add the cleaned fish heads into the boiling pot of water, along with the Thai seasonings, except for the chilies. After about 6 minutes, reduce the heat to medium-high, add chilies, and let it boil uncovered for 10 minutes. Add the onions and continue to boil for another 6 minutes. Reduce the heat to low then boil for another 10 minutes. Can be cooked and served along with veggies i.e. Chinese cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, etc.
For the Thai seasonings, the fresh herbs may be a bit hard to find. So for convenience, go for frozen ones found in Asian supermarkets or you’d have to sadly settle down to packet mixes(Mind you, there are pretty decent, healthy ones out there)
Choose sliced, frozen galangal, unlike image above.
Lemongrass. Chop these up into quarters.
Kaffir lime leaves.
This soup, along with other fish head soups, can be kept un-refigerated on the stove top for 3 days. Sometimes I have one salmon head a day(but most of the time I just scoff two or three in one day). This can be done as long as you boil for at least 5 minutes at the end of each day and every morning, to kill any bacteria.
Have in mind, that not only does the flavour of the soup improve each passing day, the salmon bones also become more edible. So with the first boil, the bones may not be soft enough for you to eat.
Step-by-step salmon head eating
1. Go for the back of the head flesh. This is the easiest part of the fish to eat. It’s basically all meat.
2. At the top of the salmon’s head is its skull(duh) which is quite different to the previous two fishes’. The salmon skull itself is very small, but what’s encircled around it is a clear, jelly-like with crunchy parts substance which is edible. I’ve never found internet sources of information on its nutritional value but from Chinese tradition(through generations and words of the wider population so pretty reliable) this is very good fat, and also considered the most nutritious part of the fish. Chinese people dip these in soy sauce.
The taste might be a bit fatty but is also savoury and flavourful. Eat this for extra nutrients, with a sour and spicy sauce.
(Here’s the skull and fatty lining)
As a warning, the brain is on the inside of the skull(duh). The brain has a strong flavour, but is creamy, slightly sweet, and packed full of fish intelligence.
3. The fish cheeks(Through intense boiling the other one has disintegrated!)
4. Another delicious, albeit a bit intense part of the head to eat is the skin. This is mostly because it’s very fatty and might be a bit too much for some people. A sour and spicy sauce can help solve your problems. Also, if you have mercury poisoning in your waters, avoid consuming fish skin, or fish heads altogether.
Everybody knows how good salmon is. The nutritional value of salmon is similar to that of blue cods’, both are fishes rich in omega-3 fatty acids, however, the protein : calorie ratio of salmon is much higher comparing to cods due to its higher fat contents. However, the omega-3 fats found in salmon(and super-ly concentrated in its head parts) does have bad fats lowering properties and helps manage weight with its ability to produce satiety.
More salmon head recipes: http://obsessivenutritioncompulsive.wordpress.com/2013/07/27/vegan-bake-sale-and-sausage-sizzle/, http://obsessivenutritioncompulsive.wordpress.com/2013/08/17/super-easy-salmon-head-recipe/
More info on fish heads: http://obsessivenutritioncompulsive.wordpress.com/2013/07/28/fish-head-eating-tips/
In conclusion, I hope you all will enjoy fish heads as much as I do, and find them to be a great source of protein, nutrients, that’s both really easy to prepare and leave you feeling awesome about helping reduce wastage in your society.