Nostril to Caudal: Eating Fish Heads

Nostril to Caudal: Eating Fish Heads

Eating fish heads certainly isn’t a new concept. Cultures around the world have eaten the tender meat out of the cheeks, throats, and collars of fish since time immemorial. Today, if at all, fish heads are usually used in stocks and sauces. Seafood chefs boil fish heads until the meat and bones release their flavour, before straining and discarding. These recipes, however, arguably waste some of the best meat, the morsels hidden within the fish’s head.

As mentioned in Part One of this series, I am leaning heavily on Gitga’at First Nation anthropologist Spencer Greening and renowned chef Josh Niland to help me better understand both the historical and modern-day uses of the whole fish. They both agree that while fish heads are excellent in soups, the components that make up the head are worthy of separate attention. Many anglers have long taken cheeks and collars, which is basically the bare minimum for utilising this great resource. Working from the front of the fish, here are some preparations to consider the next time you contemplate throwing that head in the bin.

Fish cheeks have become quite popular in recent years. The craze is warranted—cheeks are sweet, tender, and hearty. These succulent gems are found just behind and down from the eye. This part of the fish can be deceptive as the cheeks appear to be part of the bony gill plate, but a little light prodding with a knife reveals a chunk of meat that closely resembles a scallop, depending on the size of the fish.

Fish cheeks taste excellent cooked just about any way; breaded and deep-fried, pan-roasted, poached, steamed, or simply sucked straight from the cooked head. I’ve yet to find a table fish that doesn’t have a cheek worth cooking. Even when using fish heads for stocks and sauces, I can’t help but cut out the cheeks to fry on the side.

The fish collar is the meat found behind the gill plate and forward of the pectoral fins. The back of the cut is wherever your fillet started. It isn’t removed with most filleting techniques and many folks don’t take the time to take it. But many serious seafood lovers swear the meat and fat in the collar make it one of the most desirable cuts.

After you’ve filleted your fish, follow the same line along the spine forward and remove all the meat behind the head and gills. You’ll wind up with one collar from each side.

Where I live in British Columbia, locals love collars from salmon and halibut smoked, grilled, or broiled. These cuts can be marinated but are just as tasty with simple seasoning or natural smoke.

In my last installment of Nostril to Caudal, I focused on the tongue and the confusion I encountered while trying to determine what part of the fish it actually was. Both the “tongue” and the v-shaped chunk of meat attaching it to the lower jaw are worthy of the pan. While the tongue is gelatinous, it sponges up butter and herbs and literally melts in your mouth.

The meaty muscle in the lower jaw is a highly sought-after delicacy. In Newfoundland they’re coated in flour and deep-fried, but the Basque people of Northern Spain have fine-tuned countless incredible recipes using this cut of meat, which they call “kokotxas.” Check out the recipe I used from Niland’s, The Whole Fish Cookbook.”

Whole Head
Greening makes it clear that in his culture, all parts of the fish are eaten. His village often boils the heads, which makes it easier to suck the meat and juices from the collars, cheeks, and eye sockets.

“You can also eat these bones when they’re soft enough from a long boil, but they can be dangerous for choking,” he said.

Apart from the gills, the entire fish head is edible, but it’s not always efficient or convenient to cook the parts separately. Greening says that in addition to boiling, they also fry or smoke the heads over alder until crispy.

Fish heads tend to impart a stronger flavour than the rest of the fish, making them perfect for curries, soups, stews, and stocks. They can also be cooked in one piece and then picked apart for fish cakes, pizza toppings, pastas, or eating on the spot.

Greening and Niland differ on this part of the fish. While Greening enjoys fish brains, Niland comes from a more mainstream, Western culture that may not appreciate fish brains. While I want to encourage you to eat as much of your fish as possible, brains may not be the best place to start.

“[The brain] is often reserved from any salmon, trout, or halibut,” Greening said. “Halibut head soup with brains and eyes is a big deal out here.”

Niland has tried lightly battering and frying the brain on its own, but he quickly learned that the fatty organ was too rich to be served as a stand-alone item. He explained that he finds the brain’s texture to be off-putting: “It’s not that the flavour is too strong, it’s that it’s almost overwhelmingly greasy in your mouth.”

Instead, he steams the heads whole and add all the flesh into a terrine. In the process, the fat from the brain melts out of its cavity, adding flavour to the rest of the meat.

While many cultures eat the eyes out of the fish head, there are very few recipes comprised solely of fish eyes. Greening let me know his people eat all of the eyeball except for the small, firm marble in the middle.

The middle of the eyeball is often described as chalky and not very palatable. Niland calls them “too complicated for a Western palate.” He and his team in Sydney work around this by blending the eyes and using them in place of eggs in select recipes.

Niland put a delicious recipe in his new book for fish eye chips. It’s basically a prawn cracker made from blended eyes and tapioca flour. He steams, dries, then deep fries the mixture, resulting in a rather impressive final product. I’ll be covering this method in more detail next week.

When I spoke with Niland, he told me that only a few days earlier he’d started experimenting with a fish eye profiterole, a puffy pastry dough. He omitted a percentage of the eggs from the recipe and used eye purée in its place. The result was a beautiful dough that could also be used for donuts or churros.

Eating the whole fish head starts within our own heads. Time and understanding can dull the shock factor, turning “why” into “why not?” Offal and odd cuts tend to be tastier, more nutritious, and a responsible consumption choice. Tonight, I’m having fish heads for dinner. Not for the sake of this series or to save some coin; I’m eating fish heads tonight because they are damn delicious.

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