Growing up in Oklahoma I could never have imagined eating a fish with the head still on. Like most Americans in landlocked states, when I was a kid, I expected fish to come in the form of fingers. Here I am in Wellfleet digging into nothing but the head.
Graduate studies in Japan got me into this, at least part of the way. A few years living there taught this Okie to love fish and to know that you can use virtually every part of it, from liver to lips. The fins of the pufferfish, roasted on a hibachi, make a great crunchy snack, with saké.
Still, I would never have been brave enough to try cooking a fish head on its own if it hadn’t been for my partner, Anthony. He was born in Hong Kong and knows fish much better than I do.
Anthony joined me on a trip to Oslo for a symposium on Japanese literature two years ago. We stopped in Copenhagen, where, miraculously, we scored a last-minute reservation for lunch at a shared table at Noma, René Redzepi’s “new Nordic” restaurant.
Noma is as much a laboratory as a restaurant, where Redzepi and his colleagues do research into “culinary biodiversity.” They specialize in finding new flavors and sources of nutrition in plants and animals that most people wouldn’t even consider food. The menu on the day we went included bright green plankton juice and sea cucumber gonads. More realistic for the home cook was the main course, with the no-nonsense name “cod face.”
Inspired by that, we decided to try experimenting in our own small way once we got back to the Cape. We picked up some cod heads from Adrien at Hatch’s in Wellfleet. Anthony cut off the jawbones and we threw them on the grill, and although they were not as refined as Noma’s, they were a huge hit with our friends.
One of them, Annabelle, recommended the recipe for codfish jawbones in Howard Mitcham’s classic Provincetown Seafood Cookbook. Cut in half and deep fried, the bones look like oversized chicken wings. These were even better than the grilled version. The deep frying melts the cartilage inside, making a gooey complement to the crisp batter on the outside — heavenly, washed down with a cold beer.
We had heard the shanty Cape Cod boys, they have no sleds/ they slide down dunes on codfish heads/ Cape Cod girls, they have no combs/ they comb their hair with codfish bones. But eating those jawbones was real proof that Cape Codders have been enjoying all parts of the fish since before “new Nordic cuisine” came along. Mitcham calls them a “strictly colloquial delicacy.”
Ready to continue our experiments this summer, we let Adrien know we were looking for heads. He told us that local cod are harder to find than ever and that the cod he gets mostly comes from Iceland. It arrives with the heads already removed.
But soon he called to offer us a local striped bass head. It was beautiful. And big — it must have weighed at least 10 pounds. We thought of grilling it, but it came our way on a weeknight, and we had worked too late to feel like lighting the grill. We decided to throw the whole thing in the oven while we opened some beers and whisked together a chili-garlic sauce.
The bass came out looking like an angry dragon, with juicy morsels of flesh falling off the face and tucked inside the collar. We picked chunks of meat off with chopsticks and dunked them in the sauce. It was sweet and buttery, as you would expect a striper to be. But firm, like a perfectly cooked lobster.
The one head could have easily fed four or five people, but since it was just the two of us, we had enough leftovers to invite a friend to join us for fish tacos the next night. It was delicious from start to finish, and it felt good to know we had made two meals out of something that might otherwise have ended up as bait.
One fresh fish head (cod or sea bass)
Salt and pepper
Clean the fish head well. Be sure to remove the gills as soon as you get it home.
Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and convection bake for about 50 minutes. Timing will depend on the size of the head — look for the cheeks to be falling off the bone.
Blast the head under the broiler for a couple of minutes at the end to char.
Then have at it with chopsticks, digging the flesh out of the cheeks and the collar.
Chili-garlic Dipping Sauce
2 cloves garlic, microplaned
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. hot chili oil
A splash of soy sauce
Whisk ingredients together in a small bowl.