Fish Heads and Tentacles and Sea Urchins and Such
The Joys of Seafood
by Phil Johnson
fairly reliable rule of thumb about seafood restaurants in coastal regions is this: the more entrees you see featuring creatures whose eyes are still intact, the more likely you are to have an excellent meal.
That seems counter-intuitive to most of us, I know. But it's true. In the first place, only the freshest seafood still features eyes. In the second place, methods of preparation that involve less butchery to seafood always result in tastier dishes.
I learned this truism on my first-ever trip overseas in 1984. In one long journey I visited five countries in Asia and the West Pacific region. Friends of a friend in Manila who owned an upscale seafood restaurant hosted a small group of us one night for a meal. They graciously served us an almost never-ending array of their finest entreeseverything from large prawns to roast piglet. I counted at least a dozen entrees that were looking back at me: lobster, squid, octopi, several varieties of fish, the prawns, and (most pathetically) the piglet.
The food was superb, and of course it was one of the most memorable feasts I've ever enjoyed. Almost 25 years later here I am still talking about it. We finished that meal off with balutwhich is a whole other story.
But for someone like me, raised in the Great Plains of America and traveling internationally for the first time, all those eyes looking back at me from my plate were at first a little off-putting. The sight of fish-heads and tentacles is intimidating to most land-locked people, I think. My dear wife to this day has a hard time eating at restaurants where live seafood is displayed at the entranceeven if she orders a grilled cheese sandwich. The sight of fish-eyes, even on my plate, kills her appetite.
Fortunately for me, I can get past the shock factor pretty quickly, because I have an insatiable curiosity about how unusual foods taste.
The one person who has introduced me to more unusual delicacies than any other individual in the world is my friend Joe Aleppo. He grew up in Acireale, Sicily, a coastal town where foodespecially seafoodis taken very seriously.
Joe loves seafood. The first time I went to his house for lunch, his dear wife, Georgia, cooked us an octopus. She'd been at the fresh fish market that morning, and some fishermen brought in an octopus with their catch. The people at the fish market were going to throw it away, but Georgia talked them out of it and boiled it for our lunch. I've lost count of the times we have had octopus and calamari (squid) since then.
Anyway, Joe was the first person who showed me that fish-heads aren't just for decoration. Once we were his guests at a meal whose centerpiece was two excellent broiled fish (I don't remember what kind, but it was a very tasty bright-white meat.) When every obviously edible bit of fish-meat was removed from the bone, Joe offered me the head, saying I was his guest of honor and he wanted me to have the best part.
I thought he was joking, so to prove he wasn't, he took one of the fish-heads, cracked it open, and ate the eyes, brain, skin, and tongueessentially everything that wasn't bone or cartilage. Naturally, I followed his lead and ate the other fish head. I won't say it was the tastiest thing I ever ate. It wasn't even the tastiest part of that fish. But it wasn't awful, either. It's nice to know that faced with the choice of starving to death or eating fish-eyes, I would be able to do the latter.
Joe also insists that the head of the prawn is the best part. He recently coached me in how to break open a large prawn head in order to eat the brains and other bits from an ugly crustacean. "Be sure you get the eyes," he said. "They're those black things on the long stalks. Best part."
Joe says fish sold without the head is a sign it's not fresh. "The Romans had a saying," he reminded me. "Piscis fetit a capite'The fish stinks from the head.'"
I said I thought that was a metaphorical statement that has something to do with organizational corruption or something.
"Yeah, but it's actually true about fish," he assured me. "If the head tastes good, it's fresh fish."
So I was with Joe again in Acireale in April 2007, and he wanted to take me to a restaurant that serves sea urchins. They don't have heads, eyes, or brains, as far as I can tell. Just an overabundance of pointy appendages.
Cut a sea urchin open, and it's practically hollow. But there are small orange globs in there, and that's what you eat. It's the roe. "It's like the ambrosia of the ocean," Joe told me.
What I think he meant is that it tastes like concentrated sea water, with a strong, fishy piquancy. It's definitely tastes like something straight from the ocean, raw and nastywhich, of course, it is. If you like the essence of a tide pool after two hours in the sun, this is the entree for you.
I highly recommend it.
Photos by Sharon Weaver.