The Best Part of a Fish

For Nasrin

When you feel like a fish, check the weather to see
whether it’s better to bake indoors or grill out.
Small ones can be poached. Small fry can be fried whole.
Any place you buy fish should smell fresh, no trace of  bleach
or antiseptic, instead should exude the very attar
of the sea, shore, river or shoal which was their home.
Eschew asphyxiated fish, those with glaucous eyes
and limp flesh. Buy them scaled, gutted, extracted from crushed ice.
Once you have your catch, wash, pat dry. Salt and pepper
the cavity, stuff with smashed garlic and aromatics,
relying on your own counsel and taste — I have a weakness
for basil and thyme and have taken to sumac, the dark
vermilion grains ground from the berries of the tropical
shrub related to mango and cashew; not the southern
US bush with its toxic resin, the poison of the same name.
Sumac, rhus coriaria to be precise, is harmless,
though far from innocuous. Its pungence lays out
a canvas on which aerian savours, here those of fish,
can be feathered or brushed in. In this case what was aquatic
transforms into a wingèd essence which, like a kite, flies
best in a steady wind tethered to the tang of the earth.
If, at this stage, you need lemon, maybe this was not
the right fish. Many like citrus to veil such miasma.
On this point, accomodate your guests. Quarter a couple
with your sharpest knife once the sumptuous  fish,
after fifteen minutes in an intensely hot milieu
(flesh at the thickest point showing 145 F)
is deposited with a flourish on a trivet centerpiece —
but only after a short rest, so its juices can seize.
Slide off portions from the top half with a spatula,
ostentatiously detach the bone structure from the tail,
then dangle the head before the gathered assembly,
whose eyes should still look out intact, alert to their fate.
This is when you learn who likes fish, as opposed to
pescatarians from principle. The former will put dibs
on the eyes and those delectable morsels behind  the cheeks.
The latter will avert their eyes, praising their choice filet.


Nasrin was born in Gilan, on the Caspian shore of Iran, a region in which caviar abounds — she used to have it for breakfast. Gilani are familiarly referred to as fish-head eaters.

This is  one of a series of semi-comic recipe poems I wrote several years ago, Collations

Bon appétit