"The fact is I simply adore fish,
But I don't know a perch from a pike;
And I can't tell a cray from a crawfish
They look and they taste so alike."

--William Cole in ...And Be Merry

Azaleas placed
carefully--and a woman
shredding dried codfish

--Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), from Travelogue of Weather--Beaten Bones

"Our plenteous streams a various race supply,
The bright-eyed perch with fins of Tyrian dye,
The silver eel, in shining volumes roll'd,
The yellow carp, in scales bedropp'd with gold,
Swift trouts, diversified with crimson stains
And pikes, the tyrants of the wat'ry plains."

--Alexander Pope

"The heads, backbones, and tails of fish should be cooked with a dash of marjoram and thyme for half an hour and the liquid used in making sauces for fish or to use in chowders."
--Mary Whitcher, Shaker House-Keeper

So! Nothing at all happened!
Yesterday has vanished.
After blowfish soup

--Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), from Travelogue of Weather--Beaten Bones

"Agassiz does recommend authors to eat fish, because the phosphorous in it makes brains. But I cannot help you to a decision about the amount you need to eat. Perhaps a couple of whales would be enough."
--Mark Twain

Although you hide in the ebb and flow
Of the pale tide when the moon has set,
The people of coming days will know
About the casting out of my net,
And how you have leaped times out of min
Over the little silver cords,
And think that you were hard and unkind,
And blame you with many bitter words.

--William Butler Yeats in "The Fish" (1989)

Even the whitefish
opens black eyes to the law
of Buddha's net

--Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), from Haiku

A Sufi Tale:
"The King and the Poor Boy"

A man alone cannot achieve the traversing of the road of the inner path. You should not try to set out alone, for there must be a guide. That which we call a king is the guide, and he whom we call a poor boy is the Seeker.
It is said that King Mahmud and his army were separated. As he was riding his horse at great speed he saw a small boy on a river bank. The child had cast his net into the water, and seemed greatly sad.
"My child," said the King, "why are you unhappy? I have never seen anyone in such a state as you."
The boy answered, "Your Majesty, I am one of seven children who have no father. We live with our mother in poverty and without support. I come here every day and cast my net for fish, so that I can have something for that night. Unless I catch a fish during the day there is nothing at night."
"My child," said the King, "would you care for me to help in your work?" He agreed, and King Mahmud threw the net which through the royal touch, produced a hundred fish."
--parable by Faridudin Attar, Parliament of the Birds

A Japanese Folktale:
"Hachiro's Transformation"

Harchiro went to the mountain on July 27 to cut trees. He was in charge of cooking lunch for the woodcutters. Hachiro caught trout in the stream behind the hut, and he broiled and ate one. It was so delicious that he ate the rest of them as well. As soon as he had eaten the last one, he became very thirsty. While he was drinking, the other people saw him. They were surprised to see that Hachiro was no longer a human being.
Hachiro himself knew he had changed to a snake.
--from Tsugaru Kohi Shu, quoted by Richard M. Dorson

Pablo Neruda's "Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market," translated by M.S. Peden
Among the market greens
a bullet
from the ocean
a swimming
I saw you,

All around you
were lettuces,
sea foam
of the earth,
but of the ocean
of the unknown,
of the
shadow, the
of the sea,
the abyss,
only you had survived,
a pitch-black, varnished
to deepest night.

Only you, well-aimed
dark bullet
from the abyss,
at one tip,
but constantly
at anchor in the current,
winged fins
in the swift
a mourning arrow,
dart of the sea,
olive, oily fish.

I saw you dead,
a deceased king
of my own ocean,
assault, silver
submarine fir,
of seaquakes,
only dead remains,
in all the market
was the only
purposeful form
the bewildering rout
of nature;
amid the fragile greens
you were
a solitary ship,
among the vegetables,
fin and prow black and oiled,
as if you were still
the vessel of the wind,
the one and only
unflawed, navigating
the waters of death.

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Fish Tales


In the lyric and sexist words of French gastronome Andre Simon, "From the beginning of Time to this day, the sea has been man's magic larder: without plough and without pay there has always been--and there still is--in the sea a ready supply of fish for man to catch and woman to cook. The same applies to all the waters of the earth: the sleepy or rushing waters of the humblest streams and noblest rivers, the icy cold waters of deep lakes in the mountains, and the shallow, brackish waters of lowlands and sea coasts--all are inhabited by fish, and mostly fish that is food for man."

Indeed, carp bones have been recovered from Stone Age sites. Pike skeletons have been found in Danish peat bogs, pierced with bone arrows. And sturgeon bones have been unearthed in 6th century Lake Ladogo sites, near the Baltic.

THE FISH by Ogden Nash (1931)
"The fish, when he's exposed to air,
Displays no trace of savoir faire,
But in the sea regains his balance
And exploits all his manly talent.
The chastest of the vertebrates,
He never even sees his mates,
But when they've finished, he appears
And O.K.'s all their bright ideas."

When fish are categorized according to their fat content, they fall into 3 general groups:

  1. Lean fish, with a fat content less that 2.5%--that includes black sea bass, cod, croaker, flounder, haddock, hake, halibut, perch, pollack, red snapper, rockfish, and sole.

  2. Moderate-fat fish, with a fat content less than 6%--to include bonito, catfish, some salmon, striped bass, swordfish, trout, and whiting.

  3. High-fat fish, with a fat content as high as 30% (eek!), but generally around 12%. These include Atlantic herring, bluefish, butterfish, mackerel, sablefish, some salmon, shad, smelt, sturgeon, and yellowtail.


If you're looking for fish that are truly good for you and your heart, you're looking for fish with lots of Omega-3 oils--that is, special polyunsaturated oils. Look no farther than sardines, herring, mackerel, Atlantic bluefish, tuna, salmon, pilchard, butterfish, and pompano.


Ever wonder why saltwater fish have thicker bones than freshwater fish--those great tasting trout and bream that you catch in rivers and lakes only to spend the rest of the night picking little filaments out of your mouth? It's because saltwater is more buoyant than fresh water...so fish can grow nice big bones without sinking to the bottom.


Asian cultures are crazy about fermented fish sauces--and have been since ancient times, using them like Westerners use salt. Vietnam has its nuoc mam. Laos calls it nam pa. Thailand? It's nam bla. And Burma, ngan pya ye. Although all have their own signature, all are alike--fish, both saltwater and fresh, are salted, mixed with water, then allowed to ferment in wooden casks (just like soy sauce, only with fish instead of soy beans). The end product is a clear liquid that is some shade of brown, salty to the taste, and fishy to the smell.

Reputedly the best fish sauce is made on Phu Quoc, an island in the Gulf of Thailand, where exquisite and delicate anchovies, called ca com, are layered, salted, and left to ferment for months in their wooden casks. After 3 months, the juice is tapped and poured back on top of the layered fish. Three months later, the liquid is tapped again--and it is this extraction that is considered the "first pressing" and of the highest quality. It's this sauce that goes on the dining table, while second and third pressings are used in cooking.

Interestingly, fermented fish sauce was also a great favorite of the Romans. Apicius cited it over 2,000 years ago in his cookbook, calling it garum and liquamen. The taste for it died out in Europe with the end of the Roman civilization...except for natives in that tiny Roman outpost of Great Britain. Worcestershire sauce, of all things, is based on salted anchovies. No wonder you see the occasional bottle of this famous British sauce in Chinese restaurants.


Fish have were widely regarded as aprodisiacs in classical times, perhaps precisely because of their association with the sea. Aphrodite, after all, was said to have emerged from sea foam where Unanus' genitals had fallen. And a 17th century French physician believed that observable over-the-top sexual ardency during Lent was a direct result of eating large quantities of fish and shellfish.

By contrast, here's an early poem by William Carlos Williams ("Fish" from Poems, 1922) that reflects on the ur-nature of fish, their sport for man, the industry we've created, and the pure spookiness on an individual level of our uncomfortable culling of these powerful alien beings:

It is the whales that drive
the small fish into the fiords.
I have seen forty or fifty
of them in the water at one time.
I have been in a little boat
when the water was boiling
on all sides of us
from them swimming underneath.

The noise of the herring
can be heard nearly a mile.
So thick in the water, they are,
you can't dip the oars in.
All silver!

And all those millions of fish
must be taken, each one, by hand.
The women and children
pull out a little piece
under the throat with their fingers
so that the brine gets inside.

I have seen thousands of barrels
packed with the fish on the shore.

In winter they set the gill-nets
for the cod. Hundreds of them
are caught each night.
In the morning the men
pull in the nets and fish
altogether in the boats.
Cod so big--I have seen--
that when a man held one up
above his head
the tail swept the ground.

Sardines, mackerel, anchovies
all of these. And in the rivers
trout and salmon. I have seen
a net set at the foot of a falls
and in the morning sixty trout in it.

But I guess there are not
such fish in Norway nowadays.

On the Lofoten Islands--
till I was twelve.
Not a tree or a shrub on them.
But in summer
with the sun never gone
the grass is higher than here.

The sun circles the horizon.
Between twelve and one at night
it is very low, near the sea,
to the north. Then
it rises a little, slowly,
till midday, then down again
and so for three months, getting
higher at first, then lower,
until it disappears--

In winter the snow is often
as deep as the ceiling of this room.

If you go there you will see
many Englishmen
near the falls and on the bridges
fishing, fishing.
They will stand there for hours
to catch the fish.

Near the shore
where the water is twenty feet or so
you can see the kingflounders
on the sand. They have
red spots on the side. Men come
in boats and stick them
with long pointed poles.

Have you seen how the Swedes drink tea?
So, in the saucer. they blow it
and turn it this way then that: so.

Tall, gaunt
great drooping nose, eyes dark-circled,
the voice slow and smiling:

I have seen boys stand
where the stream is narrow
a foot each side on two rocks
and grip the trout as they pass through.
They have a special way to hold them,
in the gills, so. The long
fingers arched like grapplehooks.

Then the impatient silence
while a little man said:

The English are great sportsmen.
At the winter resorts
where I stayed
they were always the first up
in the morning, the first
on with the skis.
I once saw a young Englishman
worth seventy million pounds--

you do not know the north.
--and you will see perhaps huldra
with long tails
and all blue, from the night,
and the nekke, half man and half fish.
When they see one of them
they know some boat will be lost.