Whole, pan roasted fish look really impressive, and are crazy easy to cook, but some home cooks are put off by the idea of scaling, cleaning or otherwise dealing with fish guts. The good news is that any fishmonger at any decent seafood counter will prep your fish for you — you just have to use your words.
I love having an Asian grocery near me for many mostly snack- and condiment-related reasons, but store’s seafood section is a source of wonderment and joy. Not only could I buy an entire giant squid if I wanted to, but they have this handy chart hanging above their seafood counter.
I love the fish chart so much. I have even saved this photo to my favourites file, not only so that I can refer to it when at other seafood counters, but also because I love gazing at its simplistic beauty.
The chart offers some tips on all the different ways you can order a whole fish. If you don’t want to carry around a picture of fish chart in your phone, that’s fine; there are really only a few phrases you need to know.
If you want to keep the fish whole, on the bone, with its face intact — like in figure five — ask you friendly fishmonger to “scale, gut and gill” the fish, but leave the head and fins on (this also referred to as a “dressed fish”).
If you want to take it a little further, you can ask for the fins, tail and head to be removed (see figure three), making it a “pan-dressed fish”, but the heads make an excellent stock, and — if you’re frying your fish — the tail can sometimes be eaten. (I love eating fried catfish tail fins.)
You can also ask for a “butterfly filet”, where the fish is scaled and cleaned, the head is removed, and a cut is made through either the back or belly side of the fish, leaving two small fillets joined along one side. (Kind of like number seven on our fish chart, except that fish still has its head).
If you feel flustered, and have no chart to refer to, remember that any good fishmonger will be able to answer your questions, so don’t be intimidated by not knowing the “right” fish words. If you don’t want the head, you can even say “please behead it for me”. The fish person will know what you mean, even if you phrase it in an odd and macabre fashion.