"What are you doing?" I cried. "You're taking off the heads! Please leave them on."
The fishmonger eyed me, mostly with contempt for scolding him, but there was a twinkle of respect in his eye recognizing my demand to take home fish, whole and ungutted.
"What are you going to do with them, little girl?" he said.
"I'm going to dust them with flour and deep-fry them," I said.
"Oh, well in that case, you'll probably want some vinegar too," he said.
"No sh*t," I said, "like I need your advice about how to eat a whole fish!"
Perhaps it's because deep-fried seafood is so often associated with fast-food joints that we forget how good a whole deep-fried fish can be. The skin, coated lightly in flour and a sprinkling of paprika or Old Bay, turns crispy with little bubbles and craters. When you take your first bite, a rush of steam from the interior gives way to moist, tender flesh. It's so good, you wonder why you don't eat deep-fried fish more often.
Last week we talked about deep-frying fish bones for a totally edible snack, which reminded me that whole deep-fried fish are by themselves a form of nose-to-tail eating. Like deep-fried fish bones, you get the benefit of eating the crispy tail, but deep-frying the entire fish also gives you the rest of the animal too.
Deep-fried fish often takes a back seat to broiled, grilled, steamed, and poached for no good reason. It's just as easy to deep-fry a whole fish as it is to do anything else with it. In some respects, it's even easier than other preparations, which may involve filleting and seasoning, not to mention sauces and herbs.
When deep-frying, simply dredge a whole fish in flour, drop it in oil, take it out of oil, and eat with lemon wedges and sea salt. It's almost as simple as eating it raw.
You can pretty much eat the whole thing, so long as you choose small fish to fry. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) As you would for deep-fried fish bones, choose smaller specimens like smelt or whiting. Small fish need only a few minutes in the hot oil to turn crispy and golden-brown, plus they make for the best finger food.
You can eat the fins as well as the whole fish head, which turns as crispy as a potato chip.
To repeat: you can actually eat the whole head, except for the eyeballs.
Pay special attention to the spot where the flesh meets the bone—the browned, savory goodness of the meat and the crunch of the bone is one of the best bites. The skin also puffs up when it's fried and turns papery-thin and crispy, revealing a moist interior that's just as tantalizing as the meat on a juicy fried chicken leg. Have I convinced you yet?