Monday, November 12, 2012

Fish heads, Kill Bill, and random thoughts

(From Swallow Daily)

Elle Driver: “Know what I did? I killed that miserable old fool.” [flashback with Elle hovering menacingly over the stricken Pai Mei] “How do you like the fish head, you miserable old fool?” 
Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)

Quentin Tarantino was right on a lot of cultural points in Kill Bill, but as a Chinese food writer, the one I enjoyed the most was that part about fish heads... they would have been the perfect vehicle for assassination, because what ancient and irascible kung fu master could have resisted?

In the West, though, fish heads seem predestined for the cat or the garbage can. Few of us get the appeal of something staring back from a bubbling sandpot.

But think of it: if you braise the body of a fish, every bite pretty much has a uniform texture, with each mouthful tasting the same as the next one. Even the sauce hovers on the surface, rarely penetrating the skin and meat, while aromatics like bits of chopped ginger, fermented black beans, and fresh chili shreds settle to the bottom of the dish, invariably knocked off of their precarious perches on the slick skin, only to be noticed with regret once the last of the fish has been finished.

With a big fish head, though – and I’m talking about something that is at least a pound in size – there’s lots of acreage to deal with. It will consist of a whole maze of nooks and crannies where those seasonings can hide, places where they can burrow in the bones and skins and fins, flavoring every last morsel; plus, that is where you’ll also find the most interesting musculature on a fish.

Face it: the body of your average fish is pretty boring. Simple backbones and ribcages provide framework for little more than long strands of muscles stretching from the collar down to the tail. You don’t get “cuts” on a fish like you do with a pork butt or shank, the only obvious exceptions being the way in which a sashimi chef divvies up the body of an ICBM-sized tuna into tiny slices of red meat akami, semi-fatty chu-toro, buttery toro belly, and the half fat o-toro.

So, if you want to discover different layers of texture and flavor in a fish, the place to look is the head.

How complex is that part of the animal? Very: there may be up to 100 English words that describe the various parts of a fish head, as the complex array of bones and muscles make up the most intricate part of this animal.

But what does that have to do with eating? The answer lies in the way these pieces are put together.

Each one of these little muscles has a different texture and thickness and structure from the next, often with tiny globules of fat crammed into corners, so you not only have an array of flavors exploding on your tongue, but your mouth gets visited by things like plate-like sheets of bone wrapped with thin skin on one side, perhaps a fan-shaped muscle on the other, a tiny tidbit of gelatinous tissue hovering on a corner, and a fluctuating bouquet of aromatics.

That means that every bite is a different experience: sticky, meaty, chewy, pillowy, gooey, rough, smooth, and all the textures in-between are present. There’s a tongue in there, a pair of eyeballs, a soft brain, and tiny rows of teeth. To those with a sense of adventure combined with a curious palate, these add up to a sensuous experience, but one that requires rolled-up sleeves and lots of napkins, rather than candlelight and flowers.

One word of advice when you dive into your first fish head: aim for the area right beneath the eyes. This muscle is called “walnut meat” (hetao rou) in Chinese, and it is generally covered by a thin plate of bone. Composed of busy muscles that work the jaws, these two lumps are the prizes awarded to favored guests and pampered children as the best part of the fish.

However, if the idea of fish heads still squicks you out, I recommend that you take your first baby steps toward true Chinese foodie status by diving into the following recipe for fish collar, which is the area between the head itself and the body. This is called the chin (xiaba) in Chinese and is often inexplicably wasted by people should know better, since it contains particularly tasty morsels of meat wrapped up in largish bones.

So, instead of lopping it off next time and serving it to Fluffy, claim the collar for yourself, especially when you have a big fish like wild-caught amberjack (which is sometimes labeled as yellowtail and called hamachi in sushi bars). You then can turn it into a dish that is nothing short of insanely delicious, as in the recipe here where the skin caramelizes and becomes what can only be described as fish-scented candy. This is Shanghainese magic, a mélange of sliced fresh ginger and green onions sparking the sticky dark sauce that begs to be licked off of every last bit of bone and fin.

Enjoy this with a glass of warm rice wine, a bowl of hot steamed rice, and perhaps some greens or a simple Chinese pickle. You’ll quickly understand what all the fuss is about.

Shanghainese soy braised amberjack collar
Hùshì gānshāo húbóyú xiàbā 滬式乾燒琥珀魚下巴 
Serves 4 generously as an appetizer or as part of a multicourse meal

4 halves (about 2 pounds) very fresh collar from a wild-caught amberjack (aka hamachi) or other firm-fleshed yet mild large sea fish
6 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
5 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh ginger
2 cups green onions that have been trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
½ cup Shaoxing rice wine, divided
6 tablespoons good regular soy sauce
4 tablespoons (or so) crushed rock, brown slab, or piloncillo sugar

1. Rinse the collars carefully under cool running water, making sure than all viscera and gills have been removed. Thoroughly scrape off all scales under running water; carefully go over the skin a couple of times with a paring knife to ensure that the skin is scale free, since the skin is delicious and those tiny scales would ruin everything. Pat the collars very dry with a paper towel so that they fry in the oil rather than steam.

2. Heat the oil in a large, flat-bottomed skillet over medium-high until a small piece of ginger immediately sizzles when added. Place the ginger and the collars (skin-side down) in the hot oil. Sear the collars on one side without moving them so that a light crust is formed. Shake the pan and flip the collars over; add the green onions and shake the pan so that they shimmy down under the fish. When the second side of the fish is golden too, add the soy sauce, sugar, and half of the rice wine. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and let the fish slowly cook for about 10 minutes. Raise the heat to medium-high, and when the sauce has been reduced to a heavy syrup, gently turn the fish over and add the other half of the rice wine. Cook the sauce uncovered until it has once again has been reduced to the consistency of honey; you will be able to smell caramel as the sauce reaches its perfect state of gooiness. (The fish may be prepared ahead of time up to this point and gently reheated under the broiler in the final step.)

3. Remove from the heat and place the fish skin-side up on a lightly oiled broiler pan; scrape all of the sauce and ginger and onions onto the fish, as well. Broil the fish a few inches from the coils until the edges of the fish have caramelized and the sauce is very sticky.


Asian markets – and in particular the Korean grocery stores here in California – often have a wonderful array of fish, including varieties and cuts that Western markets often don’t offer.

If you decide to plunge in and prepare a fish head, just substitute one whole fish head for the four collar halves. Split (or have your fishmonger split) the head down the middle and remove the gills. Rinse the head, scale the skin carefully, pat it dry, and proceed as with the collar.

Check with your fishmonger to see if yellowtail heads or collars can be special ordered.

Rock sugar (as well as other solid sugars like Chinese brown slab and piloncillo) is a secret to the luxurious mouthfeel of many Chinese sauces because it melts into a silky layer that does not leave a sour aftertaste.

This dish will be recognized by Chinese cognoscenti as being from Shanghai due to the copious amounts of green onions, as well as because of the sophisticated sweet-salty sauce. Both the green onions and the ginger are every bit as delicious as the fish here, so be sure to enjoy them between bites of the fish.

Illustration copyright (c) Carolyn Phillips, 2012