Fish heads, fish heads…

16 Apr

Eat them up, yum! (And then try getting that song out of your head. You’re welcome.) While Malaysia is the only country with dedicated fish head dishes, fish “offal” — the bits of head, tail, and spine that are usually discarded after filleting — are eaten widely across Asia, almost always in the form of a stew or hot pot. Japan, of course, is no exception, and when I was visiting last month, my grandma made a special treat: a nabe, or hot pot, made with snapper trimmings, including the head.

Nabe is a quintessential Japanese party food. You set up a portable range in the middle of the table, start some water boiling in a large earthenware crock, and add tasty things; people crowd around and pick out their favorite bits. The broth becomes more flavorful as ingredients are added, and at the end of the night, you add some rice and eat the resulting porridge. (At least, that’s the way we do it in my family.)

Laying out the ingredients

Aside from the main protein, typical ingredients include welsh onions, or negi (which is kind of like an overgrown green onion), Chinese cabbage, tofu, and mushrooms (shiitake and oyster are good choices). The things that take the longest to cook, like the onions and the cabbage, are added first.

Add a swig of sake...

Most Japanese nabe dishes are flavored with little more than the ingredients that go in them, plus salt, some kombu to boost the umami factor, and some sake. We had our nabe with ponzu, a dipping sauce made with soy sauce and yuzu juice (though lemon juice can be substituted in a pinch).

Ready to eat

As I mentioned above, usually you help yourself, but in my grandma’s house, it’s more like she hovers over the pot filling your plate as you exclaim that you can’t keep up. (“More! Eat more! The fish is cooking!) Attempts to get her to sit down and eat something herself, of course, are futile. We did save her half a fish head, though.

So, how was the fish head? Pretty delicious. There’s lots of good meat on those bones (remember, these are all the trimmings left over from filleting), and the simmering tenderizes those gelatinous fatty bits like the eyeball. Which is really more about eating the muscles around the eyeball than eating the eyeball itself. Plus, snapper bones are large, which made them easy to avoid. (It’s fish with tiny, fine bones, like mackerel, that cause problems. Take it from someone who had to get a mackerel bone removed from her throat with tweezers.) The best part, of course, was being gathered around the pot with the family — and having that porridge the next morning for breakfast.

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2 Responses to “Fish heads, fish heads…”

  1. Dean April 27, 2011 at 1:36 am #

    LOL your Grandma is awesome! ^>^

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