Taking On The Whole Fish Many Americans aren't used to the sight of a head and tail on the table, but food writer Patricia Tanumihardja, who grew up in an Indonesian-Chinese family, says fish cooked on the bone is much more tasteful — and less wasteful.

Taking On The Whole Fish

Pat Tanumihardja for NPR
A date-stuffed trout is arranged on a bed of couscous
Pat Tanumihardja for NPR

Get recipes for Korean Roasted Fish (Saengsun Yangnyum Gui), Date-Stuffed Fish (above) and Poached Fish, as well as tips on finding fresh fish.

About The Author

Patricia Tanumihardja writes about food, travel and lifestyle through a multicultural lens — she has lived on three continents and speaks four languages. She manages the Pacific Grove Certified Farmers Market on California's Monterey Peninsula. Her book The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook will be published by Sasquatch Books in October 2009. Please visit her Web site and blog.

Finding Fresh Fish

If you've never bought whole fish before, fear not. They're brimming with freshness indicators.

• Fresh fish doesn't smell fishy. It should smell subtly of the water it came from, whether river or sea.

• The gills should be shiny, bright red and odorless.

• The eyes should be glossy with a clear sheen.

• Fresh fish should be firm, with flesh that springs back when touched. Any mushiness is usually a sign of age or that it was bruised during netting or transport.

• The skin should be free of dark blemishes. The tail should not be dried out, brittle or curled.

"I don't like my food staring back at me," my then-fiance — now-husband — whispered to me as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. My gaze drifted from the crispy, fried whole grouper blanketed in a silky red sweet-and-sour sauce — one of my mom's signature dishes — to him, and finally to my mom's expectant face. I couldn't quite gauge her response, but she obviously sensed his consternation.

Without a word, my mom lifted the dish and whisked it away to the kitchen. Upon her return, the fish was unrecognizable. Its head, backbone and tailfin were gone. Smiling, she eagerly spooned crisp-skinned chunks of soft, flaky fish fillet onto our plates. From then on, nary an eyeball was in sight when we dined at my parents' home.

Having grown up in an Indonesian-Chinese family, picking at a fish carcass is nothing new to me. However, it turns out that many Americans (my husband included) get a little queasy at the sight of head and tail on the table. I'd draw the line at sucking fish eyeballs (my Uncle George would pop one into his mouth and suck on it like candy, delighting in its texture and the pleasure of seeing me squirm), but I guess it's all a matter of what you're used to.

The uninitiated would question why anyone would even attempt to cook a whole fish. My answer: flavor. The next time you find yourself reaching for some floppy fillets, think about your taste buds. I truly believe that fish tastes so much better cooked on the bone. The gelatin-rich backbone is an excellent heat conductor, and the fatty skin seals in the moisture, producing sweet-tasting flesh and a cushiony texture unsurpassed by fillets.

Furthermore, the food miser in me loves that not an ounce of gorgeous flesh is wasted when a whole fish is cooked. You even can savor the cheeks — luscious, velvety morsels considered by many cultures to be the finest part of the fish.

Whole fish makes for a beautiful and dramatic presentation, too. If you're unsure of your dinner companions' whole-fish tolerance, cover the eyes with a mint or basil leaf, or remove them completely and stuff the sockets with a few sprigs of parsley.

Unbeknownst to many, your fishmonger will scale, gut and clean your fish, leaving you to do what you do best — cook.

Cooking a whole fish also means buying a whole fish.

This can be a challenge, especially if you're picky like I am. I always seek fresh, sustainable fish — difficult, but not impossible. If you're lucky enough to live in a coastal city like Boston or Seattle, head straight to Haymarket or Pike Place Market. Keep in mind that fish are seasonal, and your fishmonger will have whatever catch the fishermen brought in that morning.

Most supermarkets will special-order whole fish if they don't have any, and an Asian or Latino grocery store is likely to have some selection. Always ask questions to ensure that fish are fresh and sustainable, whether farmed or wild.

Steaming, frying, barbecuing and roasting are all suited to whole fish. While I love to eat my mom's fried grouper — the dish that was staring at my husband — it is too messy for me. Roasting is by far my favorite method. All it takes is a spice rub or paste, and into the oven the fish goes.

Serving whole fish is simple. Fish have a two-dimensional bone structure, and certain fish (striped bass, rockfish, red snapper, trout) lift off the bone more easily than others after cooking. Use a knife and fork, or a spatula, to lift the flesh in sections from the flat bone.

Once that's done, do not flip the fish over. It's said to be bad luck, and if you were a fisherman or a sailor, your boat would capsize. Instead, lift the backbone (I'd leave the head and tail behind to pick at, but that's up to you) to reveal the bottom fillet.

Tiny bones may still be playing hide and seek, so be diligent. If you do get a bone in the mouth, pay attention to bone removal etiquette: Using your thumb and forefinger, remove the offending splinter discreetly.

And take heart — practice does make perfect. These days, my husband is the first to dig in to fish cheeks.

Korean Roasted Fish (Saengsun Yangnyum Gui)

Pat Tanumihardja for NPR
Korean Roasted Fish (Saengsun Yangnyum Gui)
Pat Tanumihardja for NPR

I adapted this oh-so-easy recipe from The Korean Table, From Barbecue to Bibimbap, 100 Easy to Prepare Recipes (Tuttle Publishing 2008). The fish is first baked and then finished under the broiler to produce a nice, crispy skin.

Makes 4 servings

2-pound whole fish (choose a mild white fish such as branzino, trout or mackerel), scaled and gutted

2 teaspoons sea or kosher salt


2 tablespoons Korean coarse red pepper flakes (or chili flakes)

1 tablespoon bottled chili paste (I used sambal oelek, available in Asian markets)

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

1 teaspoon oyster sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

3 green onions, chopped

1 tablespoon sesame oil

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and arrange a rack in the top third of the oven.

Rinse the fish and pat dry with paper towels. Lay the fish in an oiled baking pan and make 3 to 4 slashes in the skin and flesh about 1/2 inch apart. Repeat on the other side. Rub salt all over the fish and into its cavity.

Combine the sauce ingredients.

Bake the fish for 8 minutes or until it feels firm to the touch. Time will vary according to the fish. Remove the fish and spread the sauce evenly over both sides of the fish, turning it carefully with 2 large spatulas.

Raise the temperature to 425 degrees and roast for another 2 to 3 minutes until the skin starts to get crispy.

Switch to broiler mode and cook for 1 minute on each side. The fish is done when the flesh is opaque and flakes when the tip of a knife or fork is inserted at the thickest part.

Date-Stuffed Fish

Pat Tanumihardja for NPR
Date-Stuffed Fish
Pat Tanumihardja for NPR

Shad stuffed with dates is one of Moroccan cookery's greatest dishes. Shad, however, is hard to find outside the East Coast and is extremely bony. This simplified version is adapted from Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons: Enchanting Dishes from the Middle East, Mediterranean and North Africa (Mitchell Beazley 2002) by Diana Henry. While her recipe called for 4 mackerel at 6 ounces each, I used 3 trout about 8 ounces each. Just divide the stuffing accordingly. The sweetness of the dates, the crunchy almonds and spicy harissa (Moroccan chili paste) all complement the delicate flavor of white fish. Harissa is available at ethnic grocers or specialty stores. It's also super easy to make; just find a recipe online. Serve with couscous.

Makes 4 servings

4 (6-ounce) mackerels (trout or snapper are good options, too), scaled and gutted

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Chopped cilantro, for garnish


1/2 onion, finely chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

10 moist dates, pitted and roughly chopped

Scant 1/4 cup blanched almonds, toasted and crushed

1/2 cup loosely packed mint leaves, finely chopped

Finely grated rind and juice of 1/2 lemon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon harissa or other chili paste

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For the stuffing, stir and cook the onions in oil in a small skillet until they turn translucent. Tip them into a bowl and allow to cool. Add the remaining ingredients except the butter, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Break the butter into small pieces and mix it into the stuffing with your hands. Bring everything together into a ball.

Rinse the fish and pat dry. Using a small sharp knife, cut along the inside of the fish beside the backbone to gently open the tail end to give you a bigger pocket for stuffing.

Pour a little olive oil into the bottom of an ovenproof dish. Season the inside of the fish with salt and pepper. Divide the stuffing into 4 portions and fill each fish. Arrange the stuffed fish in the dish. Drizzle oil on the outside of each fish and rub with ginger and cinnamon, and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 20 minutes, until fish is opaque and flakes easily with a fork.

Garnish with chopped cilantro.

Poached Fish

Pat Tanumihardja for NPR
Poached Fish
Pat Tanumihardja for NPR

This traditional French method of poaching fish uses court bouillon, literally "short broth." Instead of the standard white mirepoix (onions and celery), I opted for leeks. Although recipes recommend using a fish kettle or poacher for best results, I used a 6-quart cocotte (oblong Dutch oven) without incident. Trout and salmon are the most classic fish, but red snapper, striped bass or even the en vogue tilapia would work well.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

6 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 bay leaf

1/4 teaspoon whole peppercorns

1 leek, chopped

Juice (2 tablespoons) and finely grated rind of 1 small lemon

2 cups water

1 cup white wine

Coarse salt to taste

1 (2- to 3-pound) whole tilapia, scaled, gutted and fins and gills removed.

Water as needed to completely submerge fish

Herbed mayonnaise (recipe follows)

Tie up the thyme, bay leaf and peppercorns in a small square of cheesecloth for easy retrieval.

Place all the ingredients (except the water and the fish) in a fish poacher or a pot big enough to hold the fish. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, for 15 minutes. Allow the liquid to cool to room temperature or at least 85 degrees. You don't want the hot liquid to cook and toughen the exterior flesh before the interior is done.

Remove the solids, reserving the leeks.

Place the fish in the pot and add enough water to completely submerge the fish. Over high heat, bring the liquid to a gentle simmer (it will take about 7 minutes), but don't let it boil. Cover the pot and cook the fish for another 20 minutes (or 7 to 10 minutes per inch at the thickest part). Start testing for doneness after 15 minutes. Once the flesh is opaque and flakes easily with a fork, the fish is done.

Remove the fish gently with two spatulas and place on a serving plate. If desired, carefully peel off the skin with a small knife and your fingers. Scrape off any grey flesh and use tweezers to pull out any exposed bones.

Arrange cooked leeks around the fish and serve at room temperature with herbed mayonnaise.

Herbed Mayonnaise

1 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs such as tarragon, dill or parsley

2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl and serve.