Serious Eats: Recipes

The Nasty Bits: Fish Head Soup

"I grew up with all the eyeballs I could eat."

Eat them up, yum! [Photographs: Chichi Wang]

During Thanksgiving last year I made a disturbing discovery about my mother. We were all sitting down to dinner at a Cantonese restaurant, a garish affair with gigantic golden columns at the door and a super-buffet inside. My relatives, in keeping with the Chinese custom of ordering an overpriced platter of fish simply to have it steamed with ginger and green onion, had bought a whole carp to be prepared in this manner. As a token of my deepest filial piety, I thought it only proper that my mother have one of the eyeballs of the fish. With a deft flick of my chopsticks, I retrieved the jiggling eyeball from the socket of the carp and, plopping it down onto her plate, waited for her to thank me for my gracious offering.

Instead, she looked down at her plate and wrinkled her nose. "Take that away," she said, "Fish eyeballs are really gross."

I choked a little on the fish maw soup I'd been slurping. These words, from the woman who raised me on stir-fried pork stomach and neck-bone soup, who filled my lunch bags with red-braised chicken gizzards. I searched my memory for a recollection of my mother ever having eaten fish eyeballs.

"But I always thought I got all the eyeballs because you spoiled me," I finally said. It's true, I'm a lucky girl. I grew up with all the eyeballs I could eat.

"No, I just don't like them," she replied, scoffing.

Injured, I transferred the eyeball from her plate to my own and stared down at the translucent orb, shimmering and looking straight up at me. In one fell swoop
I brought the eyeball to my mouth and swallowed it, pupil and all. The trick to eating a fish eyeball is to keep it in your mouth for as long as possible. A rush of fatty fish flavor is accompanied by a gelatinous, spongy texture. Swallow too quickly and you'll miss the nuances.

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Fish heads are good eating and the eyeballs, the crowning glory. There's a lot to be enjoyed from excavating the head of a fish. Besides the eyeballs, most heads contain a sizeable section of flesh as well as some of the most delicious cartilage in existence in the greater animal kingdom. Poultry cartilage can be flavorless and pork and beef cartilage are only good when cooked over a long period of time, but fish cartilage is almost always tender and flavorful. The texture of fish cartilage is not unlike that of a crunchy gummy, if you can imagine combining the disparate components of something that's both soft and crisp.

For someone who doesn't like fish eyeballs, my mother has certainly cooked a lot of them in her lifetime. Growing up, I only remember her making just one kind of fish soup; over time, it became a staple in the house. She'd use a whole fish - usually, a yellow croaker - and deep-fry the entire thing in a large vat of oil. I remember watching as she lowered the fish into the wok, the way the oil boiling furiously around the meat, sizzling and spurting large missiles of fat.

After deep-frying the fish, she'd simmer it with plenty of ginger, green onion and most importantly, an entire tin of pickled Sichuan mustard greens. The broth would turn milky-white after simmering; the can of pickled greens would diffuse its salty goodness into the soup. The fish skin, puffed from the frying, became wrinkled and soft with a texture similar to sheets of bean curd. At the last moment, my mother would add mung bean noodles to the pot. The noodles were integral to my enjoyment of the soup - like the cartilage and the fatty tissue of the fish itself, the noodles were so delicate in texture that they slipped down the throat with little resistance.

In the end, I suppose it doesn't matter that my mother shuns fish eyeballs. Even if she had loved the eyeballs, she would have given every last one of them to her daughter anyway.

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