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Taking On The Whole Fish

"I don't like my food staring back at me," my then-fiance — now-husband — whispered to me as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. My gaze drifted from the crispy, fried whole grouper blanketed in a silky red sweet-and-sour sauce — one of my mom's signature dishes — to him, and finally to my mom's expectant face. I couldn't quite gauge her response, but she obviously sensed his consternation.

Without a word, my mom lifted the dish and whisked it away to the kitchen. Upon her return, the fish was unrecognizable. Its head, backbone and tailfin were gone. Smiling, she eagerly spooned crisp-skinned chunks of soft, flaky fish fillet onto our plates. From then on, nary an eyeball was in sight when we dined at my parents' home.

Having grown up in an Indonesian-Chinese family, picking at a fish carcass is nothing new to me. However, it turns out that many Americans (my husband included) get a little queasy at the sight of head and tail on the table. I'd draw the line at sucking fish eyeballs (my Uncle George would pop one into his mouth and suck on it like candy, delighting in its texture and the pleasure of seeing me squirm), but I guess it's all a matter of what you're used to.

The uninitiated would question why anyone would even attempt to cook a whole fish. My answer: flavor. The next time you find yourself reaching for some floppy fillets, think about your taste buds. I truly believe that fish tastes so much better cooked on the bone. The gelatin-rich backbone is an excellent heat conductor, and the fatty skin seals in the moisture, producing sweet-tasting flesh and a cushiony texture unsurpassed by fillets.

Furthermore, the food miser in me loves that not an ounce of gorgeous flesh is wasted when a whole fish is cooked. You even can savor the cheeks — luscious, velvety morsels considered by many cultures to be the finest part of the fish.

Whole fish makes for a beautiful and dramatic presentation, too. If you're unsure of your dinner companions' whole-fish tolerance, cover the eyes with a mint or basil leaf, or remove them completely and stuff the sockets with a few sprigs of parsley.

Unbeknownst to many, your fishmonger will scale, gut and clean your fish, leaving you to do what you do best — cook.

Cooking a whole fish also means buying a whole fish.

This can be a challenge, especially if you're picky like I am. I always seek fresh, sustainable fish — difficult, but not impossible. If you're lucky enough to live in a coastal city like Boston or Seattle, head straight to Haymarket or Pike Place Market. Keep in mind that fish are seasonal, and your fishmonger will have whatever catch the fishermen brought in that morning.

Most supermarkets will special-order whole fish if they don't have any, and an Asian or Latino grocery store is likely to have some selection. Always ask questions to ensure that fish are fresh and sustainable, whether farmed or wild.

Steaming, frying, barbecuing and roasting are all suited to whole fish. While I love to eat my mom's fried grouper — the dish that was staring at my husband — it is too messy for me. Roasting is by far my favorite method. All it takes is a spice rub or paste, and into the oven the fish goes.

Serving whole fish is simple. Fish have a two-dimensional bone structure, and certain fish (striped bass, rockfish, red snapper, trout) lift off the bone more easily than others after cooking. Use a knife and fork, or a spatula, to lift the flesh in sections from the flat bone.

Once that's done, do not flip the fish over. It's said to be bad luck, and if you were a fisherman or a sailor, your boat would capsize. Instead, lift the backbone (I'd leave the head and tail behind to pick at, but that's up to you) to reveal the bottom fillet.

Tiny bones may still be playing hide and seek, so be diligent. If you do get a bone in the mouth, pay attention to bone removal etiquette: Using your thumb and forefinger, remove the offending splinter discreetly.

And take heart — practice does make perfect. These days, my husband is the first to dig in to fish cheeks.

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Pat Tanumihardja