Every few days our team will scour Shanghai’s dining scene for scrumptious dishes that’ll fill your belly without emptying your savings. Not to discriminate, we’ll search everywhere from bicycle carts to chic venues with twenty-course tasting menus, knowing that any spot could have the next Dish of the Day.
Where we grew up in the US, fish head was a dish traditionally served to the ocean’s bottom feeders after a fisherman had finished cleaning his/her catch. So upon arriving in Shanghai, we were surprised to find one eye-balling us every time we opened a menu, and yearned to discover what we’d been missing all those years.
Plenty of restaurants tote delectable fish heads, with Tan Yu Tou’s rendition arguably topping the list for Chengdu hot pot-style fish head while several candidates vie for the title of “Best Hunan Double Pepper Carp Head.” But our favorite spot for fish noggin is Xiang Quan Xiangcun (湘泉乡村土菜馆), an unassuming venue with a friendly, mild-mannered staff (think Chinese Minnesotans), and not the place you’d expect to receive an ass-whooping from food so spicy it could strip paint off a Hummer.
Sure enough, your split fish head (48RMB) arrives with one half carpeted in green peppers, and the other in red, resembling a confetti-strewn float during a Christmas Day parade. Fortunately, the chilies are zesty and oily rather than just blistering, their heat somewhat tempered by their pickling.
And here’s where we try to sum up why dining on fish head’s such a life-changing experience. When eating a hamburger or steak, after the first bite, you know precisely how the rest is going to taste and just try to savor its two-note flavor for the remainder of the meal.
With fish head, you’re navigating a micro-world of shifting taste and texture terrains, ranging from the savory splinters of flesh at the spine to the accordion-like meat tucked under the gill flap to the translucent jelly towards the forehead, and beyond.
You explore the skull’s myriad contours, once in a while probing into a cavern housing a nugget of meat that’s like butter with bones. Finally your chopsticks grope an eyeball, wrench it to the surface and you crunch into a lens that feels too much like a Snapple cap’s plastic covering for your liking, but it’s a brave new sensation nonetheless.
Like any journey, eating fish head has its downers – bone in the throat, spiciness so severe you swear you’d frenched a fire ant nest – but at the end you gaze at your fish head, now scoured clean, and realize you’re a better diner from when you started eating it.
Xiang Quan Xiangcun – 108 Yongjia Lu, near Jiashan Lu (永嘉路108号, 近嘉善路). Tel: (0)21-6437-7598.
Last time on Dish of the Day: Mantis Shrimp @ Yunzhong Restaurant
See a complete list of our Dish of the Day series here.
Have a recommendation for Dish of the Day? Let Shanghaiist’s food editor Benjamin Cost know at [email protected]!