Eyeballs and all: grilled whole fish with garlic and lemongrass

Remember when I told you that I love to eat weird things?  Well, I love eating fish eyes–all that gelatinous goodness!  To get the eyes, I need the whole fish.  Yes, fillets are more kid-friendly and certainly easier to obtain at American markets, but for me, fish is to meant to be eaten whole.  With fillets you don’t get the eyeballs or cheeks–two of my favorite parts!  Plus, cooking whole fish (steamed, fried, or grilled) results in much more moist and sweet flesh.  Remember to cook whole fish until it is almost done–the flesh along the spine should not be quite cooked–or your fish will by dry.

Since most Americans don’t like to look their food in the eye, finding whole fish can be quite challenging.  Asian markets are a good bet for fresh whole fish and often offer a wide selection, including live fish swimming in tanks!  The drawback of course is that I have yet to figure out the American versus Chinese versus Vietnamese names for all  those fish staring at me from their bed of ice.  Strange really as you’d think that it would be more difficult to identify fish by looking at only fillets.  But stores that carry fillets tend to be American and so labels are much clearer; Asian stores will often only have a price per pound marker.  So far I can recognize a catfish (thank goodness for them whiskers!), striped bass, flounder, mackerel and maybe tilapia.  If you can’t get to an Asian grocer Whole Foods will have some (over-priced) options.  Boston area folks can check out the various Market Basket locations; I’ve seen some whole striped bass and mackerel at the Somerville and Burlington markets. And if you’re lucky to live in Cambridge or Arlington head over to New Deal Fish Market and Fresh Pond Seafood.  When choosing whole fish, look for three things: clear eyes, bright red gills, and no smell.

For the recipe below I used black sea bass (at least I think that’s what it is!) with garlic and lemongrass but other good choices include ginger, scallions, cilantro and even fennel.  The dipping sauce is key and little will go a long way. I round out the meal with some sauteed rau muong and white rice.

Fish and dipping sauce:
1 1/2 to 2 lbs whole striped bass or sea bass (or comparable white fish), cleaned and trimmed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stalk lemongrass, slice the thicker half into thin slices at a diagonal, mince the other half for the sauce below
3 cloves garlic, 1 clove sliced thinly and 1 clove minced
1 scallion, trimmed and cut in half
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 teaspoon fish sauce (add more to taste)
1 teaspoon sugar (add more to taste)
Thai bird chilis, thinly sliced (optional)

Rau muong (ong choy)
1 bunch (probably around 20 stalks) rau mung, rinsed and cut into 2-inch sections
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 teaspoon fish sauce (add more to taste)

Fish: Score fish 2-3 times per side, salt generously, and insert slices of garlic and lemongrass into the slits.  Insert lemongrass and scallion into belly cavity.  Grill 8-10 minutes per side over medium heat. Drizzle with scallion oil (optional).

Sauce: In a small bowl combine minced garlic, minced lemongrass, lime juice, sugar and chili (optional).  Serve with grilled fish.

Rau muong: In a large wok, heat oil over high heat until hot.  Add garlic and sautee until fragrant, about 20 seconds.  Add rau muong (in batches if your pan is too small) and sautee until mostly cooked, about 1 minute.  Add fish sauce and sautee until completely cooked.  They will wilt considerably.

Serve fish and rau muong with some fresh white rice.  Makes two servings.

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