Published and commissioned by Sugar Prawn In collaboration with Lucky Prawn Photography Elle Ross Styled by Lauren Stephens
Strategy: To create a series of ugly and beautiful photographs, fetishizing fish heads, that were published on restaraunt Sugar Prawn’s website to accompany Mark Chu’s ‘Head of the Table’ essay.
Head of the Table Mark Chu
Fish heads are precious things. Their hidden jewels are had by nimble fingers, careful tongues, and trained intuitions. If you don’t know what you’re doing, forget it. You, your torn throat, and your sorry impacted bowels will wish you’d chosen the path less perilous, as a wailing ambulance rushes you to Emergency.
Practice leads to mastery. The first step to mastery is respect. The first step to respect is understanding. Next time you’re feasting on whole-cooked fish, open up its steaming head, break it apart, marvel in its architecture. Or buy a decent-sized head to boil hard then dismantle—keep some salt handy for seasoning and sampling. Fishmongers will happily sell you heads for a few coins. Life’s just too short to flinch.
There are many, many bones in a fish head, but they slip apart much easier than fiddly poultry. To eat, clean hands are mandatory, for the skull’s bones are each complex works of art, too embedded for chopsticks, too fragile for a frigid knife and fork. The natural composition of the fish head determines the order in which their parts are had. You begin at the surface, with the collar and cheeks, ending at the brain—a perfect affirmation of love itself. Mother Nature is the master poet who need only ever refer to her own oeuvre; even within the head, she advocate nose-to-tail dining.
The cheeks are the most obvious drawcard, taut and flavorsome, like the oyster of a chicken. Along the clavicle, the fish collar is also prime, delivering rich flesh—especially from yellowtail, a Japanese specialty. Eyes provide tasty jelly (vitreous humor) and fatty chewables (optic nerve tissue) that must be sucked and tongued away from the eye’s shell (iris, cornea) and pit (lens)—but only if sucked and tongued with the mightiest pleasure! Atop the skull lies a fe tasty braids of muscle, the tongue is worth a bite, and swimming throughout the head is much fat and gelatinous tissue. For this unctuous delicacy, fish head aficionados go weak. To the Western palette, such profound wobbliness can prove challenging—which makes it the perfect natural emulsifier and depth-enhancer for seafood soups. An edible pearl, the fish brain is protected by a capable skull. Careful teeth are required to crack this spiked shield, or the back of a spoon. Naked, the brain is ever creamy, ever delicate, madly succulent. Its subtlety compares to unseasoned mousse of foie gras, though far leaner. Its aesthetic attributes—slight, pale, hidden—provoke the swooning romance of luxury. Its rarity justifies its darling. And—it should not be underestimated—humankind owes a great deal of gratitude to the fish’s brain. Without its modest capacity, all those caught fish might have cunningly resisted many more of our lines dropped and our wide nets cast.
Besides bolstering the male ego, there are only strong motivations for eating fish heads—for health, for economy, for environment. The United Nations agree. Gastronomically, fish head are tasty because of the higher amount of fat and bones, and the rigor of the muscles, but as with fish themselves, not all fish heads are created equal. Generally speaking, the stronger the flavor of the fillet—mackerel—the more intense the fish head. Fatty fish have fatty heads—salmon—so enjoy grilling. Flat fish have nearly no head to speak of. As with other offal, only fresh, well-stored, well-bled produce will do. Shark, orange roughy, swordfish and some tuna heads may contain high mercury levels. Best avoid. Gills are inedible by the same logic of displeasure which rules out scales.
Pungent flavors are best balanced with punchy counterweights. Generous aromatics imbue freshness—ginger, spring onion, coriander. South-East-Asian flavors marry well with fish head—lemongrass, lime zest. So too, chillies and from other continents and their derivatives—cayenne, smoked paprika, habenero. Asian preserves and sauces can round of any inherent potency—rice vinegar, soy sauce, black beans, Chinese pickles, even curry—and always season with authority when cooking fish heads. Intense alcohol suits intense foods. In the case of fish heads, something sharp and heavy, like Moutai. The drunk never swallows a fish’s bones.