I grew up eating and thoroughly enjoying wild game and fish offal and body parts. To this day, I associate fried liver with my mom’s savory gravy and my dad’s favourite birthday dinner. Dad was born and raised in Spaniard’s Bay, Newfoundland, where he grew up eating whatever was cheapest or easiest to bring home. As a family we spent the occasional summer there, eating cod tongues and cheeks, and seafood chowders flavoured by fish scraps. In the evenings, my sister and I would wade up to our knees in capelin and scoop them up by the bucket full. We brought the tiny smelt back for Grandma to fry whole, giggling as the little eggs crunched between our teeth.
The memory of those experiences inspired me to write this series. Well, that and the fact that some people are still unaware that fish have cheeks, or that you can eat their tongues and stomachs. Consumption of the entire mammal and bird enjoys a long history and recent resurgence with the “nose-to-tail” movement. MeatEater regularly celebrates this concept, and we’re planning to bring you more great content about eating your whole fish in the coming weeks and months.
For this series, I reached out to two people who greatly influenced how I view my own consumption of fish: Gitga’at First Nation anthropologist Spencer Greening, and Australian culinary wizard Josh Niland. Greening has dedicated his life to studying the practises of British Columbia’s indigenous people, and Niland is the author of the newly released, groundbreaking, “The Whole Fish Cookbook.” While many cultures around the world have been eating fins and skins for millennia, I’ll be focusing on species, techniques, and recipes that are accessible and sustainable in North America.
Niland believes that modern culinary practises yield an average of 55% waste—meaning more than half of our fish end up in the trash. His highly-regarded restaurant in Sydney, Saint Peter, utilises 91% of each fish (all but the gills, gallbladder, and pyloric caeca).
“If you can generate value [from the rest of the fish], you’re being sustainable and not putting things in the bin that have the potential to be delicious and nourishing,” Niland said.
He recently hosted a party for his book launch and fed 95 people with only eight fish. That dinner would have required 17 fish if he’d worked off the old model.
He doesn’t simply throw everything into fish stock either. Niland has innovated specific recipes for each part of the fish. From eye chips to liver pâté, he celebrates offal without needing to cover it in sauces and heavy flavours.
Greening arrived at many of the same conclusions through studying ancient cultures rather than experimentation. He also only discards the gills, gallbladder, and pyloric caeca (that white, finger-like organ in the digestive tract).
“For the most part, you can just fry or boil them whole and devour them like that,” Greening said about trout and salmon species. “Absolutely everything can be boiled or cooked with high heat and then eaten, at least with the fish in the northwest coast of B.C.”
As responsible, savvy, and frugal anglers, we should learn how to use more than just the fillets. But doing so means we have to recognize fish organs as meat, just like we’ve done with other game animals. Josh believes the common trepidation about offal stems from a lack of awareness about what good fish should taste like. He blames intimidation, lack of knowledge, difficulty of sourcing, and short shelf life for the disconnect.
Start with the organs you already know, like livers and hearts. A fish’s liver makes up a large percentage of its body mass—some weigh as much as the filets themselves. They’re some of the cleanest livers on the market and don’t taste fishy at all—a great starting place for aspiring chefs.
To successfully harvest organs, you might have to change some of your long-held processing habits, like rinsing the fish.
You should dry-handle all parts of the fish, as organs that have come in contact with water are prone to spoilage. All scaling and gutting should be done without water. Use a clean dish rag or paper towel instead. This is easier than it sounds when you place an emphasis on delicate knife cuts and gentle removal of the innards. It’s important that offal and skeletal parts are always kept dry, have no aroma, and aren’t slimy or mushy.
Niland believes anything with a “fishy” smell is a clear indication of water contact. Josh and his team dry handle all of their fish ingredients, from the carcasses in their stock to the skins in their fried puffs. He went on to explain that even the fish they age for over a month have zero smell. He suggests consumers rely on their noses to determine if a fish is good for consumption.
Obviously, the best option for this sort of cooking is to catch and process your own fish, but a surprising amount of fish markets are happy to assist if they know there’s someone willing to pay for their scraps. Before purchasing anything, however, check for freshness. The fish should have a firm and shiny coating of mucous and bulbous eyes that are moist and clear. Their gills should be bright red with no smell.
As with most fish preparations, freshness is key. While there are some organs that freeze well (like the stomach, heart, spleen, and blood), there are just as many that don’t. Due to the short shelf-life of offal, it can be hard to accumulate enough organs to make up a main dish. Josh suggests the work-around of salting, drying, or smoking them, then grating them atop vegetables, or into stocks and sauces.
All meat has the potential to carry heat-resistant toxins, and fish are no exception. Certain species run the risk of carrying creepy crawlies, pollutants, and high volumes of mercury—especially large, warmwater species. Various health authorities issue advisories against eating fish organs, so invest some time into learning more about the best species to harvest in your area. Even if the organs can’t be utilised, there are still the bones, fins, and chunks of hidden meat.
These days, many of us strive to eat better, waste less, and minimise the amount of packaging we use. By using fish nose to tail, we check all of these boxes. Plus, once we have the foundation of the basic recipes, tastes, and textures, we can get creative in the kitchen. Follow along as we travel nostril to caudal, discussing cooking every part of the fish along the way. Next week we’re starting at the head, and we’ll discuss methods and recipes for cooking tongues, eyes, brains, cheeks, collars, and throats.