If you imagine a tasty dish of fish, you are more likely to conjure up visions of an appetising fish fillet, a lobster or maybe some delicately flavoured crabmeat. Of all the fish and seafood dishes you have tasted in the course of your life, your thoughts are hardly likely to turn to the eyes of these creatures.
Precisely, the fish eyes most European and American countries call waste are considered to be a real delicacy of many Asian cuisines. Before you close the page you are now reading, consider that it may be worthwhile learning more: you could discover a treat you will never want to go without.
HOW TO COOK FISH EYES
First of all, it must be said that any bony fish, such as bream, bass and salmon, have eyes ready to be enjoyed but, generally speaking, any eye of a fairly large size offers great gourmet satisfactions. So, get ready to taste what you usually throw away after cooking your fish in the oven. However, if you find this initiation a bit too drastic, you can proceed by steps.
For example, have you ever tried ukha? This is a Russian soup whose most popular and widespread version is made with fish, usually cod. To make it, you need one kilo of cod with its head on, 2 leeks, 2 onions, 7-8 potatoes cut into slices, 2 carrots, pepper, saffron, dill and salt. The basic recipe calls for all the ingredients, apart from the fish, to be placed in a saucepan, covered with plenty of water and boiled for about half an hour. At this point, the cod, previously cut into smaller pieces and boned, without removing the head, is added to the saucepan and left to boil for a further twenty minutes.
It is customary to serve ukha with its broth and pieces of vegetables and fish, topped by the fish head for all to admire. Furthermore, in some Russian eateries, the soup is plated up with the whole fish, so in this case, it is impossible to avoid tasting the exquisite eye.
FISH EYES IN SOUTH EAST ASIAN CUISINE
As we head further east, it is worth remembering that fish is usually served whole in South East Asian countries, because the head and tail are believed to be lucky, and the eyes in particular are offered to the most important guest. A matter of superstition, therefore, which probably derives from the fact that this part of the fish is such a delicacy: after all, there are only two eyes and they are usually quite small, so only one of the diners can enjoy them.
In Sri Lanka, people take a more practical approach to the fish eye polemic. The eyes and other parts of the fish contain valuable nutrients, so why let them go to waste? Families on this island nation eat the whole fish. It’s not a bad idea in a world where 1 billion people depend on fisheries (often overexploited) for their main source of protein.
WHAT DO FISH EYES CONSIST OF?
In scientific terms, eyes are largely made up of the so-called vitreous humour, a jelly-like substance of which 99% consists of water and the rest is a mixture of hyaluronic acid and other substances. Broadly speaking, when you eat the eye of a fish, you are savouring the vitreous humour which, in itself, has very little flavour. This is why the best approach is to enjoy the fish eyes baked in the oven and generously spiced, or straight from a tasty soup.
A trend which has been catching on in recent times is that of squeezing the eyes of the fish and using the resulting liquid to thicken sauces and soupy first courses but, for this purpose, there are thickeners available which are much more effective. Instead, it is preferable to use various fish heads to make a fish 'stock' enriched with other ingredients such as tomatoes and garlic which, when passed through a strainer, may serve as a basic ingredient for other dishes. In our own case, however, after discovering this new and rather odd delicacy, we can enjoy not only tasting the eyes of the fish but also the 'cheeks', another unexpected treat which deserves to be valorised.
Chef Cary Taylor thickens the plot of Southern oyster stew with grouper cheeks and burst grouper eyeballs, along with coconut cream, cayenne, curry and, of course, oysters. And young chef and author of The Whole Fish Cookbook, Josh Niland, isn’t squeamish about eyeballs, and can probably convince you not to be either once he blends them with tapioca and makes them into crispy chips. The Australian chef is bent on finding ways to reduce the massive amounts of waste of seafood prep in restaurants.