Eating Fish Eyeballs

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Would you eat a fish eyeball? In western culture, we generally avoid food that can look at us! However, in places like China, Russia, Sri Lanka, and more, fish eyes are a popular delicacy. Fish Eyeballs contain delicious umami flavor. With nutrients like protein and omega 3 fatty acids, they’re surprisingly good for you, too [3]. Using more parts from the fish we already catch can help solve our huge food waste problems. Moreover, as western palates become more adventurous, once over-looked ingredients like fish eyeballs become increasingly eye-catching!

Who Eats Fish Eyeballs?

In the west, we tend to keep a comfortable distance between ourselves and our food. Our fish markets and meat counters generally offer only clean, prime cuts. For the rest of the world, however, this is far from the case. In many Asian countries, fishing is a mainstay. In these cultures, every part of the fish is either eaten or utilized in some way [7]. In fact, the heads and tails are a sign of good luck [6]. In China, home cooks and chefs alike commonly serve the entire fish as a main course, reserving the eyeballs for the most honorable guest [8]. In Russia, soups and broths are common food staples. One of the most famous Russians soups, dating all the way back to the 17th century – called ukha – is made using whole fish heads, eyes and all! [4]

Even in Spain, chefs frequently use fish eyes to thicken and flavor sauces and broths because they contain a gelling agent. The eyeballs add a more viscous texture and a greater depth of flavor [7].

Many cultures rely on fish because it’s cheap. Families in Sri Lanka, for instance, consume the entire fish – eyes and all – as a means of avoiding waste and getting the most nutritional value out of their catch [8]. Thanks to globalization, these food trends are slowly infiltrating western society. Western consumers are becoming more willing to try new flavors and textures. As these trends continue to expand, expect to discover previously overlooked ingredients pop up on menus.

Here is a video with Chef Davin Waite where he uses Tuna eyeballs to flavor Tuna nigiri. He shows you how to extract the eyes without popping them and how to make a sauce using them.

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What Do Fish Eyeballs Taste Like?

The exact texture and flavor of a fish eyeball can vary. The type and size of the fish, whether the fish lives in saltwater or fresh water, and how exactly the fish is prepared will influence the final flavor. That being said, there are some distinct similarities one should expect when eating fish eyes.

The outer layer of the eyeball is soft and gooey. Chefs sometimes compare fish eyeballs to eating raw oysters. When biting into the eyeball, you’ll experience a crunchy, wafer-like texture in the center of the eye [8]. As you continue to bite in, the eye releases an explosion of rich, umami flavor. Some experts say that the secret to eating fish eyes is to let them sit in your mouth as long as possible, allowing the array of fatty flavor and gelatinous, spongy texture to dance across your palate [6].

For many western consumers, it’s our minds, not our tongues, that prevent us from eating eyes. Our internal compass often inhibits us from trying things we see as culturally taboo. It is wise, then, to slowly introduce new flavors and textures to our palates. With fish eyes, for instance, you may want to try eating them cooked first, though they can be consumed raw. Fish eyes can be served in soups and broths. They can also be grilled, baked, or broiled. These methods subdue some of the stronger fishy flavor and help firm up the meat for those who have an aversion to squishy textures.

Don’t allow squeamishness to rob you of a potentially incredible culinary experience!

Are Fish Eyeballs Good For You?

If the potential flavor experience of fish eyeballs isn’t enough to win you over, perhaps the nutritional value will! Experts consider fish to be one of the healthier foods to consume in general. Fish meat contains lean protein, vitamin A, and omega-3 fatty acids. The head, in particular, contains surprisingly high concentrations of these nutrients [8]. These elements can help lower the risk of heart disease as well as preserve and improve brain function. One study asserts that individuals who eat a diet rich in omega-3s were nearly 40% less likely to develop age-related macular degeneration. Age-related Macular Degeneration – or AMD – is a common cause of blindness among older people [9]. This same study asserted that eating a minimum of 4 ounces of fish per week is enough to benefit eyesight in humans.

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While you don’t necessarily need to eat fish eyes to receive these health benefits, it certainly won’t hurt! Incorporating different parts of the fish into dishes can be a subtle way to receive the benefits of fish without having to eat the whole thing [3].

The nutrients combined with the incredible flavor create a culinary match made in heaven. However, there is still one more benefit to wading out in the culinary waters by trying fish eyeballs. Utilizing the whole fish could potentially help the whole planet.

Reducing Food Waste

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately 57 to 80% of fish stocks are fully exploited – meaning the current biomass of those species are between 40-60 percent [5][2]. Moreover, approximately 17% are “over-exploited,” meaning the current biomass is less than 40 percent. These numbers can’t account for illegal catches, which is why there is such a broad gap in the data.

The World Health Organization estimates that over 1 billion people world wide depend on fish as their primary source of protein [1]. Even global economies depend of fishing. The FAO estimates that fishing and aquaculture account for 10-12 percent of the world population’s livelihoods. The world relies on fish for food and money, but we’re running into a big problem. If these over-fishing trends continue, there won’t be enough fish to feed and fund global communities [2].

These statistics help fuel the growing zero-waste trend. As chefs, culinary professionals, fish mongers, and consumers become aware of these facts, they begin searching for solutions. One potential solution is to promote and popularize underutilized fish species. This trend can help over-fished populations recover.

Another growing trend is to utilize more of the fish we already catch. Tuna Cheek, for instance, is a culinary trend that is only recently starting to pick up steam in the western mainstream. In the same way, eating fish eyeballs may actually help solve a global fish crisis. By training our minds and our palates to seek our more adventurous flavors and textures, like those found in fish eyeballs, we actually play a small part in tilting the global scale back towards balance.

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Final Verdict

Fish eyes are a delicacy in multiple cultures outside the west. They contain a soft, gelatinous texture and rich, umami flavor. Furthermore, they are packed to the gills (pun intended) with incredible nutrients that can benefit your heart, brain, and eyes. Lastly, by opening our own eyes to the culinary potential of ingredients like fish eyeballs, we can actually help promote more sustainable fishing practices! Your tongue wins. Your body wins. The earth wins! Who doesn’t love winning? On that, I think everyone can see eye to eye!

Sources

“3.5 Availability and Consumption of Fish.” Global and Regional Food Consumption Patterns and Trends. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/3_foodconsumption/en/index5.html FAO. 2019. FAO yearbook. Fishery and Aquaculture Statistics 2017/FAO annuaire. http://www.fao.org/fishery/static/Yearbook/YB2017_USBcard/navigation/index_intro_e.htm Hong, H., Zhou, Y., Wu, H. et al. Lipid Content and Fatty Acid Profile of Muscle, Brain and Eyes of Seven Freshwater Fish: a Comparative Study. J Am Oil Chem Soc 91, 795-804 (2014) doi:10.1007/s11746-014-2414-5. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11746-014-2414-5#citeas Rumble, Victoria R. Soup Through the Ages; A Culinary History with Period Recipes. McFarland & Company. 2009. https://books.google.com/books?id=kQtCKmQG4rsC&pg=PA84&dq=ukha+culinary+history&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjIwNmFiqzmAhWIhJ4KHZbzC0AQ6AEwAXoECAQQAg#v=onepage&q&f=false Ryan, Holli. “Why IS Overfishing a Problem and How Can We Prevent It?” National Union of Students. December 19, 2017. https://www.nus.org.uk/en/news/why-is-overfishing-a-problem-and-how-can-we-prevent-it/ Shute, Nancy. “Eating Eyeballs: Taboo, Or Tasy” Food History & Culture. National Public Radio. March 6, 2013. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/03/06/172902511/eating-eyeballs-taboo-or-tasty Thiel, Juilia. “Key Ingredients: Fish Eyeballs: The Southern’s Cary Taylor injects this southeast Asian delicacy into oyster stew.” Chicago Reader. March 10, 2010. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/key-ingredient-fish-eyes-cary-taylor/Content?oid=3391559 Wally, Maxine. “If You’re Not Eating the Eyeballs, You’re Missing the Tastiest Part of the Fish.” Esquire Magazine. Com. March 27, 2018. https://www.esquire.com/food-drink/food/a19598699/you-should-eat-fish-eyes/ Warner, Jennifer. “Eating Fish May Preserve Eyesight. Study: Fish With Omega-3 Fats May Lower Risk of Age-Related Macular Degeneration.” WebMD. May 15, 2007. https://www.webmd.com/eye-health/news/20070515/eating-fish-may-preserve-eyesight

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>