Scaling Up Fish Mountain

Wando’s Fish BBQ

Feast. Fruit salad. Grilled mackerel. Banchan. Fish stew (that I forgot the name of), that came with…free fresh fruit (in this case, two large, ridiculous mangoes).


A very fish-heavy meal. Two preparations, grilled and in a stew. A light fish broth, coupled with a mild red pepper flake gig and littered with kimchee, bean sprouts, and perilla. The tenderness of the fish was surprising, as fish flesh is usually delicate and prone to overcooking, especially if stuck in high temperature stews.

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The Red Sea.

Seeing as I’m writing this post-Taiwan, and having witnessed, up close, my local 內湖區 (Nei-Hu district) fish monger (somebody’s grandmother, most likely) scale what would later become a delicious steamed fish, I wondered about all those shiny fish scales that were expertly knocked off; were they edible after some sort of preparation, and if not, could they be rendered into something more, besides open-market-confetti?

My searches of scientific articles yielded this and this.

Before I continue, two things come to mind when we explore the offal, the odd ends, bits and pieces of animals that are traditionally avoided or cut off. First, if one decides to stick it on a plate, I’d like for it to be edible. Naturally, I’m a curious eater; I’ll smell, nibble, and bite at everything that is presented on a plate. To me, there’s no such thing as garnish, at least for aesthetic reasons. Garnish to me has to provide some sort of function, whether its to bring flavors full circle, or to add a hint of flavor to finish. Aesthetics, in this case, would only be a bonus. Two, I don’t like wasting edibles. Incorporating fish scales into a meal…sign me up.

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Simple yet delicious.

The first study outlines a scientific study that aimed to find alternative collagen sources from cattle skin, and so, they looked towards fish scales as a potential source. The initial scare of deriving collagen from cattle-only sources arose with the incidental rise of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) and food-and-mouth disease. In extracting collagen from fish scales, they would subsequently bypass these nasty diseases.

As outlined, there were three main steps to extracting fish collagen: decalcification (removal of calcium), disaggregation (breakup of protein structure), and pepsin digestion (collagen is a protein, and needs to be broken into its constituent amino and imino acids). Collagen from fish, apparently is a bit more delicate than calf collagen, but can be a viable substitute for cosmetic products. This, however, is not a blog about cosmetic products, and we all know that collagen can be found in long-simmered broths.

Would it be possible to extract the collagen from fish scales into savory broth? The idea isn’t too far out there. Decalcification can be achieved by simmering fish scales in a broth, with the addition of an acidic component (apple cider vinegar is my favorite), or lemon juice. Disaggregation and pepsin digestion can ideally be achieved by turbulence (stick blender), and hours of long-slow heating (paramount anyway for a broth). At the end, the broth should be pushed through a fine-mesh sieve in order to filter out undesirables. Interesting concept…I’m just not sure of the collagen contribution from ONE scaled fish, but if one has a main course involving a fillet of fish, the amount of scale contribution from several pounds is more pronounced. Throw them in with the head and bones.

The second study involved the use of fish scales as a potential calcium supplement to treat osteoporosis. Upon seeing such use, it immediately reminded me of the spherification post that I did earlier. My initial thought was “fish scale caviar.” If one could achieve the proper compositional change from fish scale to calcium supplement through the application of organic acids, then it could certainly be used as a calcium catalyst for the reaction with sodium alginate in a reverse-spherification reaction to create fish scale caviar. Of course one would have to spice up the calcium mixture so it’s not grainy and unpalatable (blender, sieve, aqueous applications with not much acid!), but a fillet of fish served with a broth made from its bones topped with fish scale caviar? That’s a damn fishy meal.

Happy scaling.

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And a palate cleanser.