Fish head soup with coconut cream

This was lunch several weeks back when we still had a house helper. I cooked two medium-sized fish heads, one for her and one for me, and I was shocked to find out that she didn’t eat fish head. Well, okay, she was from a small fishing village in Bohol where fish is cheap and always fresh. Apparently, they only ate choice cuts there. Anyway…

When you hear the term “fish head soup”, the picture that forms in the mind is fish head in a clear broth with leafy green vegetables. I have a few of that in the archive — one with sili leaves and a sinigang version. But I’ve often dreamed of a fish head soup that was more filling, more robust and less ordinary. No clear broth with subtle hints of garlic and ginger but full-bodied and with a lot of bite in it. Chilis and coconut cream seemed like a great idea.

To make this soup, you will at least one whole fish head. Obviously, eh? I had two whole talakitok (trevally), each weighing about three-quarters of a kilo. Two fish heads of that size are more than enough to feed two people. Contrary to what most people think, fish heads are quite fleshy especially if one does not balk at eating the jelly-like skin, lips and eyes.

You will also need two cups of coconut cream (use fresh, canned or powdered), an onion, about four cloves of garlic, as many siling haba (finger chilis) as you like (three or four are enough for me) and some finely sliced onion leaves to finish the dish.

Clean the fish heads; remove the gills if your suki at the wet market has not done so yet. If the heads are rather large, you can chop them into halves.

If you want the chilis to bite but not scorch, slit them open lengthwise and scrape off the seeds (a trick I learned from Nigella Lawson).

Peel and thinly slice the onion. Crush, peel and finely mince the garlic (it’s easier to peel garlic after crushing the cloves first).

Heat about two tablespoonfuls of vegetable cooking oil in a pot that should be wide enough to hold the fish heads in a single layer to ensure even cooking. Add the garlic, onion and chili peppers and cook until fragrant (about a minute over medium-high heat).

Add the fish heads in a single layer. Pour in about a cup of water, season with patis or salt then bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for about 10 minutes (longer if they are rather large). The water need not cover the fish heads — the heat from the steam is enough to cook them.

Turn up the heat to medium and pour in the coconut cream. Bring to a gentle boil. Continue cooking the fish, uncovered, for a few minutes. Taste the soup and add more patis if necessary.

With a large spoon or spatula, lift the cooked fish heads and transfer to individual soup bowls. Pour the soup and spices over them and garnish with chopped green onions.