Chengdu Challenge #4: Good-Luck Fish Head (Hao Yun Yu Tou)
Lucky in Fish, Unlucky in Friendship~~
“I have a weird request for you,” I said to Hobo Mike, a commercial fisherman and the head fishmonger at my local Whole Foods. “I need a giant fish head. No body. Just head.”
“That’s not weird,” he replied. “Lots of people ask me for fish heads. I’ll put you on the waiting list.”
“Cool,” I said. “But in that case, I’d like to place an order, because I don’t want just any old little snapper or salmon head. I need the biggest fish head you can get.” To which he replied that he’d try to get me a grouper head, which would weigh in at around two pounds. Perfect.
The Mala Project is, after all, a challenge to cook my way through the authentic Sichuan recipes in The Cookbooks, including ones featuring bits and parts we normally throw away in the West.
But Hobo had trouble getting a grouper head, so eventually I said I’d settle for a few red snapper heads. When I went to pick them up, however, they had disappeared from the cooler. Despite having my name on them, they had been nabbed by one of the other fishmongers, who apparently slipped someone else the coveted heads. Of course all Chinese know that the head is the best part of the fish, but who knew there was such demand for fish heads in Nashville?
So I resigned myself to continued waiting for some snapper heads, when out of the blue Hobo Mike called and said he had scored two giant grouper heads for me. Now we’re cooking!
Most of you may have a hard time getting your kid—or even your partner—to eat a giant fish head covered in a heap of fresh chili peppers, but my daughter grew up in China and views it as her lucky day when this dish arrives on the table. Fong Chong loves fish because she spent her childhood in Guangzhou and ate fish and other river and seafood all the time. She can’t get her head around how hard it is to get fresh, whole fish here, how expensive and how limited the selection. For us, I explain, it’s more of a special occasion treat.
Fish is less common in land-locked Sichuan too, and this recipe is clearly for a special occasion since its Chinese name is Open Door Red (Kai Men Hong), which means something like welcoming the spring and good luck.
When I finally got the grouper head I realized I had gotten more than I bargained for. The head alone weighed in at a mammoth 3.5 pounds. It was a great bargain at $1.99 per pound, compared to grouper filet, which goes for $24.99 a pound. After I read the recipe more closely, I realized I was supposed to slice the head in half for steaming, but that was not going to happen now, as it would take heavier equipment than we had to saw through all the bone and cartilage in this beast. Plus, a butterflied head this big wouldn’t fit in the steamer anyway.
This recipe is similar to a Cantonese-style fish, steamed with ginger and scallions, but in true Sichuan style it is topped by a mountain of fresh red and green chili slices before being doused with slightly sweet Shaoxing wine. It looks fabulously colorful, if scary spicy, but you can control the heat level through chili choice. I chose serrano for green and Korean hot peppers for red. They are both medium hot, and lent just the right amount of heat to the glorious wine-fish broth that filled the bowl while the fish steamed.
The fish head itself wasn’t exactly pretty, though it was not unappetizing. The cheeks were, of course, the prize meat here, snowy white and pillowy, and they were huge—enough for three people to share. There was also nice white meat on the top of the head and around the “neck,” or the area just below the head. The mouth and jaw area was gelatinous, gooey and boney, and sucking on pieces of it helped me understand why Asians love fish head—for the myriad textures and tastes in one compact space. None of us however—not even Fong Chong—could bring ourselves to eat the grouper’s giant eyes. That’s a texture too far for me.
The verdict on this dish was: interesting. We liked the head, but we missed the body. A bodyless fish is as weird to us as a headless fish is to an Asian. At least the sheer size of this good-luck fish head will bring us super-size luck, we thought. But that was not to be, because just as we finished it, FC got a text from her best friend saying she was unexpectedly moving back to China in a week. Super unlucky. Her only real ally at school—the only other Chinese speaker—would soon be gone.
I don’t know how we’ll solve the friend problem, but the fish solution came in the form of a whole red snapper made a few days later in this exact same way. Fong Chong still went straight for the head, but because someone instilled good Chinese manners in her at some point, she put the small prize of the cheek meat in my bowl. I love this about the Chinese, who often will pick out the best parts of a dish with their own chopsticks and put it in the bowl of a respected or loved dining companion.
I only hope this lucky fish and her loveliness will bring FC another BFF someday soon.
- 1 2-pound fish head (or whole fish such as red snapper, cleaned, with head)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground white pepper
- ½ teaspoon MSG
- ¼ teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper
- 4 teaspoons Shaoxing wine
- 2 teaspoons Chinese light soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons peanut oil
- ½ cup thinly sliced green chili peppers (4 or 5 jalapeños or serranos)
- ½ cup thinly sliced red chili peppers (4 or 5 Fresnos, red jalapeños or Korean red peppers)
- 3 scallions, cut into sections
- 2 teaspoons thinly sliced ginger
- Mix salt, white pepper, MSG, Sichuan pepper, Shaoxing wine, soy sauce and peanut oil to make a sauce.
- Rinse and dry the fish head and place in a bowl that will fit in your steamer. (If using a whole fish, place some of the ginger and scallions inside the fish.) Pour the sauce mixture over the fish head (and inside any crevices) and sprinkle the green and red chili peppers, scallions and ginger over it.
- Bring water to a boil in a steamer. Carefully place the bowl on the steamer rack, cover and steam for 10-12 minutes, until fish is just done and flaky. Carefully remove the hot bowl and pour off most of the liquid. Serve the fish head along with its crown of chili peppers.