To me, there is nothing better than eating fresh seafood by water. It’s important to feel connected to where our food comes from, but it’s hard to do that when fish is cut into unrecognizable fillets or when shrimps are pre-peeled.

Silvia Cohn

I prefer having my fish cooked whole for this reason, but also because it tastes better and is more rewarding to eat. However, I understand when people who have never eaten fish cooked whole get a little squeamish when there’s a fish head staring back at them. 

sauce, fish
Silvia Cohn

While studying abroad in Costa Rica, the program organized a trip to Nicaragua and took us to visit a lake. There, they served each of us a fried red snapper whole on a platter with some lime, rice, tostones (fried green plantain), and a bowl of tomato-based sauce with onions. I looked at it with my mouth watering, while others looked at it with mouths gaping in horror.

Everyone started chattering about how to best go about eating the fish. Eventually they figured it out and calmed down.

Once they were done eating the top half of the fish, there was panic again about how to get at the other half of the fish. The murmuring began once again: “How do I get at the other side?” “Ew, do I have to use my hands?” “Do I pick it up and flip it over?”

To avoid experiencing this panic, confusion, and frustration, here are some simple tips on how to eat fish cooked whole.

Eat Your Fish Whole Like a Champ

1. The meat in the center of the fish is the part that would normally be filleted. Start by gently peeling this meat away with your fork piece by piece along with the skin.

2. Be careful of spines. Some types of fish are more bony than others. You’re bound to get at least one in your mouth, so just carefully spit it out.

3. Once you are done with this half of the fish, there are two options depending on preference: remove the spine, or just flip the fish over.

4. Once you’re done eating the other half of the body, it’s time to pick at the rest. Meat around the tail and fins can be difficult to get at with a fork so I suggest just picking it up and nibbling.

5. There is even meat in the head. Don’t forget the cheeks! Some fancy restaurants even serve just the cheeks as a delicacy; why not have them with the entire fish? 

In many ways, cooking a fish whole is far superior to fish fillets. Keeping the body intact tends to hold in the flavor and moisture better. Most importantly, you waste less of the meat. It may be a process to eat, but at least you can enjoy every last bit—and maybe even find it more rewarding. Forget filleted fish!