In the US, we don’t really eat fish, we eat fish filets. For every pound of boneless skinless fish filet harvested, the seafood industry discards two to three pounds of scraps, much of it known as fish offal. This includes perfectly edible, seriously delectable bits that, in many cultures, are the most prized bites on the platter. Areas where the food culture has evolved around seafood are particularly good at utilizing the whole fish. Norway has its molje, a stewed dinner that uses not just the filet but the liver and roe of their cold water cod. In China, you might battle with your dinner mate over who gets the eyeballs from the fish head stew. Could that be you?
As eaters have delved into whole-animal eating of land dwellers, fish offal is just starting to hit the menu. It’s time to taste, not waste that whole fish. Everything from nose to tail, including the nose and the tail, can be utilized. You can enjoy these fish parts for a fraction of the price of a boneless filet and still get all of the nutrition and flavor — some would even say more — in the bargain.*
According to the World Wildlife Fund, eighty-five percent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits. Now, more than ever, it’s imperative that we manage the food we take from the ocean and do all that we can to value every forkful. Fortunately for us, such practice has delicious results.
Ways to Stretch the Catch and Make Fish Offal Delicious
- Caviar: Caviar is the most popular way to enjoy fish eggs. While some species, such as Beluga, Sevruga and Osetra, which are harvested from the sturgeon of the Caspian and Black seas, were once the gold standards of roe, unsustainable practices both limited the availability of these eggs and encouraged a market for a variety of other types of caviar. Domestically produced sturgeon, paddlefish, trout and salmon roes offer a range of flavors and egg size that can be used in the classic presentation of Russian caviars, served on sour cream slathered blini, perhaps with a shot of ice cold vodka, or in creative preparations, such as topping an omelet.
- Greek taramasalata: This traditional Greek dish turns carp roe into a creamy dip by blending the eggs with olive oil, bread, lemon and a bit of onion. Unlike many other roe recipes that strive to keep the eggs intact, this one relies on pounding or pulsing the roe in a food processor to release all of the eggs’ flavor into the spread.
- Bottarga: Tuna or mullet roe is dried to make bottarga. This funky, briny fish product is very flavorful and is best served thinly shaved or grated. It has a passionate following, particularly when fine flecks are dusted over pasta, as in the traditional dish, spaghetti alla bottarga.
The male counterpart to roe is milt, the sperm sacks of male cod. They are known as shirako in Japanese cuisine and are served steamed and sautéed to enhance their delicate texture and flavor.
Fish sauce is the salty, fermented, magical liquid that is central to many south Asian cuisines and is the root of the popular Worcestershire sauce. Many varieties are made simply of whole fish, traditionally anchovies, and salt. Ancient Europeans enjoyed a fermented fish sauce as well: Garum was a potent potion made out of the intestines of a variety of fish.
It is a long-held tradition among fisherman to eat the heart of freshly caught fish to honor the animal’s life and give thanks for its sacrifice.
Fish heads are popular in Asian cuisine where there are countless recipes for turning them into nourishing soups. Diners prize the simmered head for the variety of textures and flavors that can be found in the meat of it as well as the eyes, brains and cheeks.
The bones, cartilage and brains of fish such as cod and salmon are very rich in omega-3 fatty acids, the primary ingredient in fish oil capsules, and can be processed to produce this popular supplement.
The fish collar is cut from behind the gills of the fish, down through the belly so it contains the big bone of the clavicle and a nice bit of meat enriched by the fat of the belly. Stewed, roasted or grilled, it’s easy to cook as the bone and fat keep it from drying out. (See below for recipe.)
They are just what you think, the solid pucks of meat from each side of the fish’s head. Cheek meat is denser than the rest of the fish. Historically, they were the fisherman’s prize, but are now popping up on the restaurant menus of chefs who know a good cut when they taste it.
Deep-fried fish bones and fish tails can be snacked on like chips.
Most commonly, though, the bones are turned into stock where the slow simmer pulls out nutrients and collagen, which adds a rich flavor and silky texture to the liquid. Arajiru, a soup made from the discarded portions of the fish such as the head and bones, is a popular breakfast food in Japan.
Fish maws are the dried swim bladders (the organs that allows fish to control their buoyancy), of large fish. The ingredient is pricey and is considered a delicacy, equivalent to the cherished (and deeply unsustainable) shark fin in Chinese cuisine.
Monkfish liver, also known as the “foie gras of the ocean,” is popular in Japanese cuisine, where it is called ankimo. It is served much like traditional foie gras, lightly sautéed and presented with tangy accompaniments to counter its richness. It is also used as a sushi ingredient.
Cod liver oil is a popular supplement that dates back to the Vikings. Taken for joint pain and brain function, it’s readily available wherever vitamins are sold. You can also buy canned cod livers for a less processed source of fish oil.
Norway and Newfoundland share a love of cod tongues. The cut is not actually the tongue but the boned bottom of the jaw, including the tongue. It is served lightly breaded and fried.
The frill of the scallop is the brown strip of meat surrounding the prized white coin that we most often see on our plates. Washed well and boiled for three to four minutes, they can then be dredged in seasoned flour and fried.
Like good fried chicken or chicharrones (made from pork skin), properly crisped fish skin has a crackling goodness that is hard to resist. It’s easy to prepare; just make sure the skin is dry and the pan is hot. You can enjoy it on its own, as part of your dinner, or as a sushi roll.
Recipe for Fish Offal
Roasted Fish Collars
The fish collar is a multi-napkin proposition — like a good burger or juicy ribs, it’s messy and it’s worth it. You can roast or grill your collars, or broil them as I’ve done here. They’re hard to overcook and take on a variety of flavors, so enjoy them with one of the mops listed or use your favorite barbecue dab.
The easiest way to track down fish collars is to find a purveyor who is selling whole fish. They are most likely filleting onsite and will be more likely to have a supply of collars — and other tasty bits — on hand to sell. A local fishmonger or, better yet, a dockside fisherperson, if you find yourself so lucky, can help you out. I have good luck at the farmers’ market where a local fleet brings in fish straight off the boat. I’ve even done well at grocery stores, on occasion, particularly Asian markets whose customers cook offal regularly. Don’t be put off if you don’t see what you need on display. Oddly enough, some mongers choose not to showcase their lovely fish heads but if you ask they often have a hidden stash for eaters in the know.
Eight collars from meaty sustainably sourced fish such as wild salmon, trout, or Arctic Char (visit seafoodwatch.org for more recommendations).
1 tablespoon neutral oil, such as organic canola or safflower Salt
Mop of your choice:
In a small bowl whisk together:
1/4 cup neutral oil, such as organic canola or safflower 2 tablespoons lemon juice Zest of one lemon 1/2 teaspoon crushed peppercorns
In a small bowl whisk together:
1/4 cup neutral oil, such as organic canola or safflower 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar 1 tablespoon soft herbs such as cilantro, tarragon or dill, minced
In a small bowl whisk together:
2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as organic canola or safflower 1 teaspoon dark sesame oil 2 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- Preheat the broiler.
- Rub the collars with oil and season with salt and arrange on a broiler pan.
- Place 3-4 inches from the element and broil for 5-7 minutes, until beginning to brown.
- Turn over and continue to broil for another 5-7 minutes, until browned and cooked through.
- Remove from the heat and immediately brush with the mop of your choice, flip, arrange on a serving platter and brush remaining side.
* Some of the offal of larger fish, such as shark, tuna, swordfish and orange roughy contain high levels of mercury and other toxins and should be avoided or enjoyed sparingly, particularly by expectant mothers and children.