In the Chinatown section of Bangkok, years ago, I found the neighborhood of restaurants that specialize in shark fin soup, and ordered a bowl. I was curious what the big deal was all about, and that curiosity overwhelmed the strong ethical case against shark fin soup. My bowl of soup, which cost about $30, was bland and featureless. It was like eating salted water with a spoon. I felt completely unsatisfied and thoroughly icky, as if I’d gone into one of the many sleazy massage parlors in the area, and gotten a foot massage.
In the making of shark fin soup, the fin is often the only part of the animal that’s harvested, while the rest of the body is tossed back into the ocean. But with most fish for sale at your local market it’s the opposite: the fins are thrown away, along with many other edible fish parts.
I’ve been a buyer of such refuse in recent months, including fish fins, which can be quite meaty. This new practice was inspired by a recent blood screening that found low levels of HDL — aka “good” — cholesterol, along with high levels of triglycerides, also known as too much fat in the blood. According to reams of data, both low HDL and high triglycerides can be remedied, counterintuitively, with fish oil, which has been shown to be so effective that many doctors will offer it as an alternative to statins, which can cause problems of their own. The active, beneficial ingredients in fish oil are the omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to have a host of other benefits too, including lowering blood pressure. All of its benefits add up to reduced chances of heart attack, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.
So, along with a pledge to get more exercise and eat less dessert, I decided to incorporate fish oil into my diet. But instead of going for the supplement form of fish oil sold in capsules, I went straight to the source. I asked the fishmonger at my local market to set aside collars, bellies and fins-all of which are oily-when they are cutting up their whole fish. They sell it to me for $2.99 a pound.
The collar is the meaty section just behind the head and gills. The meat is marbled with fat and contains soft, oily bones. Sushi restaurants sell the grilled collars of yellowtail and other fish as the delicacy that they are, but unless somebody asks for them, many such pieces of succulent fish flesh, and their heart-healthy oils, end up the landfill.
Bellies are the long pieces of meaty skin that are cut off the bottom of a fish right before it is fileted. It’s the fattiest part of the fish, and unlike the collar or the fins, there are no bones to work around. As with the collar, Asian chefs have a deep affinity for this fish part, as an internet search for “fish belly recipe” will quickly reveal.
Most fish have a dorsal fin rising above their spine. It’s the fin that sticks above the water in the case of a cartoon shark. Like shark fin soup, which carries a lot of karmic baggage, soup made from fish fins can also be a rich source of collagen, as well as oil. And like that overpriced bowl of immoral soup I ate in Bangkok, my first bowl of fin soup was about as bland.
The two leftover fish parts that I tell the fishmonger not to save for me are the heads and spines. The spines because they don’t have enough fat, the heads because there is too much other stuff, like eyeballs, brains and teeth, that I neither care to eat nor pay for. Plus, fish heads can get fishy real fast. And that fishy smell is something to be avoided at all costs-admittedly a tall order when one is dealing with fish.
If the fish parts are fresh enough they won’t smell like fish, and that’s what you want. This means you want to pick them up on the very day they were cut, and deal with them immediately. If you do bring home a bag of fish parts that smells fishy, you have to decide for yourself if they are too fishy to work with. Rubbing fish with copious amounts of salt, followed by a quick rinse, can remove a mild fishy smell, along with the slime that is often found on fish. But if it’s too fishy, don’t waste your time with it. Perhaps you need to work on your relationship with your fishmonger, or find another.
I freeze the collars for later use, after vacuum sealing them. They are gold. And how else can you get fresh king salmon for $2.99 a pound? When it’s time to cook them, do a simple marinade and broil them. Lately I’ve been into a dry rub of one-part salt to five-parts brown sugar. Soy sauce and sugar is another option.
I use the same rub on the bellies. I then dry them in the dehydrator, and freeze them. My kids call them salmon candy. One of these days I will cook Chinese Steamed Fish Belly.
As for the fins, they are more limited. I don’t do anything but make soup.
Shark fin soup is often made with chicken stock, to add a little extra flavor. But as I’ve discovered lately with dorsal salmon fins of late, fin soup can be made to taste good.
Those of you who deal with fish heads or plain fish bones can follow the same sequence with the discarded fish parts of their choice.
Start by simmering the fins (or whatever) in water. If it starts to smell a bit fishy, don’t be afraid to change the water once or twice. When the last water changing is done, add some soup veggies, like carrot, onion, celery, and potato. Simmer on low for at least two hours.
To serve, prepare each bowl with the following:
1 sheet of nori, crumbled
a pinch of grated garlic
a splash of soy sauce
a few slices of jalapeno (optional)
Pour or ladle the broth out of the pot and into the prepped bowls, and enjoy a simple, satisfying bowl of dorsal fin soup. It’s satisfying, cheap, and good for your blood lipids.