Touch - Fish heads and whole fish

Touch - Fish heads and whole fish

By
Chui Lee Luk
Contains
3 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742702407
Photographer
Chris Chen

What would you do if you were politely offered the head of a fish to finish at a table in front of many people? It’s a gesture of respect in most cultures, so in terms of courteous human behaviour you should finish the fish head with a great show of enthusiasm. However, what if you’ve become a little apprehensive about gouging out the eyes (part gluey gumminess and part inedible cartilage) or picking out the gelatinous flesh of the cheek or sucking out the soft brain tissue? And you’re this way because you sometimes relate too much to the living creature the fish once was?

There was a time when it was great fun to race the other diners to get to the fish eyes (when, of course, there wasn’t a guest of honour to whom we had to defer). I guess it wasn’t part of my motivation at that time whether fish eyes were of any particular texture or something that might be a bit gruesome. I approached everything from the point of view of discovery and absorbed what other people did without judgement. A whole steamed fish — head, fins, tail, bones and all — was a bounty of delicious feasting. It was fascinating to hear of the customs associated with the whole fish: that we shouldn’t turn it over when we’d finished one side because that’s liable to bring a bad omen to the person who caught it and cause their boat to capsize.

With discovery came further questions. Do fears and apprehensions grow when questions are combined with imagined answers? I’d followed adults to the markets and had seen the fish either swimming or lying inert, in both instances with staring, unblinking eyes. They seemed strange and dangerous; they even had sharp teeth that could be seen through halfopened mouths. The markets were slippery places to wander through; the tiles constantly wet, which seeped uncomfortably into my sandals. The stall holders seemed to struggle to hold the fish, which were said to be cold and shiny with slime. I had already grown afraid of touching the fish. What then was the correlation between the whole fish lying on the table at the market stall and the steamed fish presented on the platter? Everything about the fish head was disgusting: it was slimy skinned, harboured the eyes and the sometimes big, fat lips, and those sharp, mean-looking teeth! What is that horror of a dish, fish-head curry, that the adults make such a great deal of fuss about? You don’t mean to say that’s all there is for dinner tonight?

Let’s get back to the scene. I’m the guest being off ered the fish head to savour. Let me get past the obligation to be polite that necessitates steeling myself to go through the motions of enjoying the head of the fish. I want to synthesise everything I like about eating fish, what I know I like about eating it, and work through the disgust of the untouchable fish head. I review my perennial favourite fish dishes: deepfried whole fish with sweet and sour sauce; fish meat converted to a paste, formed into balls and served in curried sauces; little candied fishes (caramelised ikan bilis), which contain heads and all. I realise I’m no longer disgusted by the feel of raw fish. Their bodies are purpose formed for their environment. I’ve also learned to celebrate the texture of foods for their variety, including sliminess, sponginess, softness ...

All at once, the apprehension of touching this fish head is dispelled and I’m genuinely appreciating the experience of savouring it.

Recipes in this Chapter

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