Nose to tail: "There's a fish head for every mood"
Here's a heads up: the nose to tail movement is taking a fishy turn
Bethany Kehdy is a Lebanese-American cook, presenter and author of best-selling cookbooks The Jewelled Kitchen and The Jewelled Table, specialising in Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa cuisine. And she loves eating fish heads.
That might sound absurd, but maybe she's on to something. The nose-to-tail movement started by chef Fergus Henderson in the nineties with his restaurant St. John and was cemented by the release of his 2004 book The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. It is now experiencing a seismic shift, away from pigs and offal to, you guessed it, fish.
Proof is in the pudding (or fish pie?). There's already been a buzz around Australian chef Josh Niland's cookbook The Whole Fish since its launch in September last year. Nilard loves fish.
Bethany loves fish too. Every single bit of them. "Nose-to-tail has always been a way of life for me and my family in Lebanon, " she says. "And in London one of my favourite restaurants is Fergus Henderson’s St. John, who is a pioneer of this movement and I love places like Native.
"In my Levantine culture, every crumb is considered a blessing to be cherished, so throwing edible food away is considered very disrespectful and arrogant. Besides, I get such pleasure from nibbling a fish head and sucking out succulent mouthfuls of concentrated flavour. There's such a contrast of textures from chewy to crunchy. It feels very restorative."
Fish is healthy, versatile and often cheaper than finer cuts of meat: you don't need the hard sell, we know, but would you eat all of it? The scales. The fins. The head? You CARP be serious.
Bethany Kehdy Facebook
Why do you love eating fish heads?
Three reasons in one; fish heads are delicious, nutritious and sustainable. It’s traditional, not a ‘trend’, and there are always some people who will look upon eating fish heads as ‘uncivilised’. But if you can, next time you're in a seafood restaurant, look around and you may see diners enjoying the head of a fish. In Beirut it's certainly not uncommon, and the waiters will be impressed, rather than perturbed when they pick up your empty plate.
Why should everyone eat fish heads?
They’re delicious! But also sustainable and often budget-friendly. I am a firm believer in conscious consumption. Most of what we eat is due to learned behaviour, but if we stop and think about our eating habits and challenge ourselves we can open ourselves up to a world of new and exciting experiences and better practices. We waste so much food based on often arbitrary ideas of what constitutes as civilised eating. For me, there is something quite uncivilised in not honouring the whole fish.
What about the nutritional value of fish heads?
My grandmother would say, "this is all nutrition" and I have taken her word for it. You hear all about the benefits of fish oils and so forth, but for me, sticking to a traditional diet that our ancestors followed and has nurtured human-kind for millennia is enough. I certainly feel the grey cells working better after a good fish head feast.
Bethany Kehdy The Jewelled Kitchen
Do you cook fish heads up in bigger dishes or to make stock?
Yes, I make a mean Siyadeeyeh (Fisherman’s rice). I start by caramelising a load of sliced onions in good olive oil and with lots of cumin. I then add the fish head — sea bass or bream — and brown it slightly, then cover it with water and add a couple of bay leaves and season with salt and pepper. I leave it to slow cook until the flavours have developed and then strain the stock and add rice. Meanwhile, another whole fish bakes in the oven. More onions are fried, tempura style and tahini dressing served on the side. That's one of my favourite dishes.
What reactions do you get when people who see you tuck into a fish head?
People shout “Gross!” Anyone that gets squeamish with me or looks at me like I’m “uncivilised” can expect a barrage of questions that challenge their perspective on many of the things they consume and consider normal. For example, eggs are a good one to consider.
Is the head the first part of the fish you eat?
The head is often the only thing I’ll eat. If the diners are not fish head eaters, they’ll automatically just transfer the heads to my plate. It’s a given.
What is your favourite type of fish head?
Gosh, there’s a fish head for every mood! I love fried fish heads, they’re very flavourful and addictive like ‘crisps’ that are so moreish when dipped into tarator (tahini) dip. Some of my favourites are local to Beirut, such as malifa or barracuda and Sultan Ibrahim (mullet). Also you can’t beat whole bisri (tiny sardines) with a cold beer and a sea view.
Have you tried any new fish heads recently?
I’ve recently taken a liking to lion fish, which are predatory in Lebanese waters, so even more sustainable if you take that into account. A quick and ritualistic dinner for me at home is a salmon head dusted with seven spices and lathered in pomegranate molasses and sesame seeds then baked until sticky and crispy.
Have you always run a zero-waste kitchen?
I grew up eating nose-to-tail and have been consuming fish heads for as long as I can remember. My father would dish up raw liver, brains or testicles fried up in garlic, coriander and lemon, plus marrow bones were an essential part of any good stew in our home.
We were always reminded as children how lucky we are to have the food we have and we had no choice but to eat what we were given. With time I have grown to adore the dishes I didn’t care much for as a child.