The fish, the whole fish

by frankbeswick

Many people throw away parts of a fish that are both nourishing and tasty.

We like to eat fillets. Yes, when I have been fishing for mackerel and pollock I have had to try to debone the fish, often without total success. I would never have made a successful fishmonger, but recently I have discovered that in parts of the world people are far more practical than we finicky types are and eat more of the fish and indeed some shellfish than we do. But western chefs are rapidly catching up with the edibility of the whole fish and are using far more of it than they used to.

Picture courtesy of Grazvdas Jurgevelicius

The Cheek of It.

A week ago my newly born granddaughter, three weeks old,   was holding an audience, and we duly went round to pay her homage. While we were paying our dues to the "centre of attention" her mother, an Angolan who grew up in Portugal, was cooking dinner. There was a pan filled with four fish heads. I was surprised at this, but I ought not have been, as the Portuguese are as keen on fish as their Spanish neighbours are, and she explained that people from the Iberian Peninsula regard fish heads as a delicacy. She acquires them from a local shop that caters for the small Portuguese community in Salford, Greater Manchester.

Apparently, the really delicious part of the fish head is the cheek, which is soft, moist and rich in muscle, but we in Britain have long thought that there was nothing worth eating in it, though many people used to use the heads boiled as part of fish stew. Cheeks are often separated from the fish and fried in batter or bread crumbs as a delicacy. It is said that the cheeks of hake are especially tasty. 

But there are other parts of the head that are eaten as delicacies. In the Basque country the people regard the gelatinous chin of cod as very tasty indeed, calling it kokotxa. We in Britain would never think of eating the chin, which we have long assumed to be part of the inedible head, but we have been missing out. Some chefs like to use the flesh from under the cod's eye, which, though small, can be used in canapes. Occasionally fish tongues are used in this way. 

Yet we are also overlooking the eye. At this many of you will shudder at the thought, but there is a tale to back up the practice. In the 1980s a  yacht was wrecked in the Pacific by a killer whale collision, and the family aboard spent 101 days or so adrift in a life raft. When rescued, while they had lost strength in their legs by lack of practice, they had no vitamin C deficiency at all. Researchers attributed this to the fact that when they caught a fish they had eaten it all, including the eyes, which are rich in vitamin C.  

The Discarded Bits

The fish we buy is often filleted, but when you catch and eat  your own fish you have to gut and fillet it, but this means that you are left with bones, tail and offal, such as liver. All normally go to waste, but they don't need to. When gutting mackerel that I have caught I always ensured that I retained and ate the liver, which has a soft delicate flavour. Fish liver oil has been making a come back recently, as it is remarkably good for joints, and you can buy cod liver oil capsules in health shops. The capsules beat the old way of administering cod liver oil by far. In 1950s Britain, when we had a socially progressive society, all children got free rations of cod liver oil and school milk. I can recall being lined up in the kitchen to be dosed when mother called out "Cod liver oil!"  The taste was not pleasant, but along with milk it gave strong bones and healthy joints. 

One restaurant in London supplies a starter made of monkfish liver cooked with sea purslane, which is a salty tasting marsh plant found in British and European estuaries. I have never foraged sea purslane, as I dislike walking over mudflats, so I will leave it to foragers more determined than I am.

Yet we have also overlooked the bones. True, we eat bone without thinking of it. When you eat sardines from a tin you notice that there are no bones or insignificant bits of them. This is because sardines are boiled at high pressure to dissolve the bones and organs. The reasons for this are that they would be too small and time consuming to fillet. We also eat white bait, small fish that are eaten whole, bones organs and all. Nowadays some chefs boil fish bones to create a stock for fish soups.

Now, the Japanese have a culinary culture very different from the Western equivalent, and there is a Japanese restaurant in London which offers a fried mackerel skeleton as part of its menu. It is soaked in brine [salt water] and then deep fried with seaweed to augment the taste. The Seaweed is kelp. This is the broad leafed kind that you sometimes find washed up on beaches. It is high in iodine and other nutrients. Apparently this dish is very tasty.

Maybe my father was right. This very practical man, besides having the ability to eat the strongest spices without ado, dealt with fish bones by crunching them and swallowing. 



We eat eggs. But one of the great delicacies is caviar, the roe, the eggs of a sturgeon. This giant fish is prevalent in the Caspian sea, and the eggs are collected from captive fish and sold on the markets. But sturgeon is not the only fish whose roe is consumed, for herring roe is also a delicacy, at its best in winter. However, some gourmets also consume the milt of the herring, which is the seminal fluid of the male fish, dried and powdered. It is said to be a delicacy. Herring roe used to be nicknamed poor man's caviar.

There is a Sardinian dish known as Botarga, which is milt and roe dried into a powder then pressed into a slab, which is then spread on pasta or toast. The roe of any fish can be used in this dish and it is said to be a delicacy, especially by the Sardinians. Yet there are fish in British waters whose roe is tasty, though there are some reservations about eating some of them. Cod and herring are popular, but pollack and ling have been used in roe dishes.

Ling is something of a problem for fishing and I have never eaten it or its roe. In the nineteenth century it was considered the poor man's cod, for it is a gaddoid, one of the cod family,  and was eaten by impoverished Irish immigrants, so it became unfashionable. Lucky for the ling, as it is a large, slow growing fish, and so beam trawlers are forbidden to catch it. Small ling can be found near shore, but the large varieties, that it is permitted to catch with a line, like deep rocks and wrecks about a thousand feet down and so are impossible to trawl. Expert fishermen know where the rocks and wrecks are, but in the British Isles you are likely to find suitable water on the edge of the continental shelf off Ireland, so as I have never fished that far out there is no chance of my ever having caught  a large ling. The ling has a large liver that used to be eaten with relish and its roe is tasty. But personally, I would not fish for it for ecological reasons.

There are plenty of recipes, far more than can be given in a short article, but I have listed a useful and informative work by my culinary guru, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, of River Cottage fame, which contain a plethora of recipes for , as Hugh would say, fishy foodies. 


The River Cottage Fish Book, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and Nick Fisher, Bloomsbury, 2007

The Roe Less Traveled, Clare Hargreaves, Independent. September 16th 2015 [article.]

Updated: 09/17/2015, frankbeswick
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AngelaJohnson on 09/26/2015

Occasionally, I buy mackerel and salmon in cans and they both include some bones (they're soft and edible).

WriterArtist on 09/21/2015

I do not relish fish but my husband loves seafood and he can devour the entire fish in one go. Sardines which are of small size have small bones and while others struggle to remove bones, he can eat it as is. I think there is a skill involved in cooking as well as eating fish.

frankbeswick on 09/18/2015

Thanks. Mudflats are part of nature, but I do not greatly enjoy walking across them; and currently with my own garden producing abundantly I have no need to gather sea purslane.

DerdriuMarriner on 09/18/2015

frankbeswick, Basques and Sardinians are quite clever in not wasting their resources. But it still is a bit unexpected to help set a table by going to the refrigerator to pull something out and find oneself face to face with a fish's, pig's or sheep's head!
What is offputting about mudflats?
Best wishes to the granddaughter and her proud parents and grandparents!

Veronica on 09/18/2015

thanks Frank.

My favourite chef Miles Collins gives this basic advice for a perfect Fish Pie. copyright Miles Collins .August 2010

1. Use good fish and plenty of it
2. Don’t overcook the fish.
3. Get the sauce right; well flavoured, not too much, not too little.
4. Get the ratio of potato topping right-see sentence above.

frankbeswick on 09/18/2015

That sounds like a dream place to live, and the plan to boat fish sounds a good one. I have never gone shrimping, but it is something that I would do were conditions right. If you make a good fish pie, you will enjoy it.

dustytoes on 09/18/2015

Thanks for the advice Frank, but in Florida (where I will live) there are no rocks, so no worries of getting trapped. I'll be fishing from a boat in the Intracoastal Waterway, or just offshore. I plan to go shrimping too, which I've never done, but sounds like great fun. You have to go at night and use a light to drive the shrimp into a net.
I'd love to try making a fish pie.

frankbeswick on 09/18/2015

Thanks Dustytoes. I am not an expert fisherman, as my casting skills are poor. I do boat fishing as and when I get the opportunity, fishing from a pier is also in my skill range, and I have also fished in lakes. But beach casting is hard to get right. If you go sea fishing, when you return south, beware of fishing from exposed rocks, as we in Britain have lost fishermen who have been trapped by advancing tide, and I suppose that America is the same.

I think Veronica, that your combination of fish and seafood in pie is the right one. I often eat fish pie when we go out for a meal, and I love it when this combination is in the pie.

Veronica on 09/18/2015

Mira, I hope you find some fish stock. I use fish stock and chicken stock frequently. My mother always saved vegetable stock and yet for years I poured vegetable water down the sink. Now I save and freeze veg stock, chicken, beef and fish stock in little plastic containers.

Frank, I always include smoked fish in a fish pie. I use a smoked fish, a coloured fish such as salmon, a white fish and maybe some shrimps or prawns. My 2 year old grandson eats lots of it.

dustytoes on 09/18/2015

I always buy fillets and have always wondered what I would do with an entire fish. When I move back south I plan to fish a lot so I'll never have to buy fish from the store. However, I realize I am not that good a fisherman...
Mira - I hate when I buy bad fish! I've heard that if it has a very strong, fishy smell it's no good. Even though I know that, I purchased what ended up being strong smelling fish, which I ended up throwing out. Now I don't trust that store to sell me good fish.
Congrats on that new granddaughter Frank!

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