The Whole Is Greater Than the Sum: Celebrating Commensality Through Whole Fish

Beyond the sum of its culinary and cultural value, whole fish matters because it lets us gather. The flavor, the traditions, the fact that it’s too much for one person—these factors beckon us all to the table.

The Whole Is Greater Than the Sum: Celebrating Commensality Through Whole Fish

Beyond the sum of its culinary and cultural value, whole fish matters because it lets us gather. The flavor, the traditions, the fact that it’s too much for one person—these factors beckon us all to the table.

by Ethan Pan

I fumbled around with the chunk of fish in my mouth, feeling for it. One flake at a time, I ground the tender flesh between my molars. Wait. I squinted, then, without moving my tongue, slowly chewed again. There it is. My fingers reached for my lips, pulling out a pin bone, half an inch long.

This is the price we pay for whole fish: an acrobatic routine performed by our tongue and teeth. As a child, I never quite understood why my family insisted on cooking fish whole; cutting it into fillets would minimize the choking hazard, allowing us to eat it faster and in larger bites. Now that my palate is more mature, of course, I can taste the difference. The flavor of bone-in fish is rounder, rich like homemade stock. Since it’s attached to the collagen-rich spine, the meat is more unctuous—almost custardy—and the bones hold on to moisture, staving off stiff, overcooked flesh.

But that can’t be the whole story. Why else would we keep the fish’s head on, which to many is grim if not disgusting? For one, eating whole fish means letting no meat go to waste. Typical filleting techniques throw away prized meat in the collar, tail, and head of the fish. Because these parts are not exercised as much as the main body, their meat is extra tender. As cookbook author Corinne Trang explains, Chinese culture holds the head of the fish in high esteem because it has the most concentrated flavor. Thus, whole fish doesn’t just prevent waste. It actively saves some of the best parts of the fish.

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