You know that feeling when you’re certain that something is really, really good and everyone else is the big dummy for not realizing it?
For as long as I’ve loved to eat, I’ve felt that way about fish skin. The majority of America seems to consider this ingredient the tissue paper in a gift box — a bit of decorative protection, nothing more. Nearly all the fish you find at the average supermarket comes without skin. Even in restaurants, fish skin is usually treated like chicken bones, abandoned on the plate in a sad gray pile.
What a waste. I understand that this country’s palate is a little lacking when it comes to enjoying all the gristly parts of an animal, but when prepared right, fish skin is a wondrous thing, with so much more texture and flavor than you’d assume. I love the way it browns and crispens in the bottom of a pan, serving as the perfect garnish for a flaky fish filet. It reminds me of the crackling on a beautifully roasted piece of pork, or the crispy bits on a roast chicken, not the slimy-tough membrane people seem to imagine in their minds.
So I’ve been very surprised to see crunchy, highly seasoned fish-skin snacks blow up as a trendy item, even making their way to my local Costco, where I spotted two mountains of bags at the head of an aisle. Fried fish skins have been a cheap snack in Asia, especially China and South Asia, for ages. But in the last few years, a number of companies have entered the U.S. market with packaged fish-skin crisps and pretty branding, enticing food influencers and trend-hunters via salty, low-carb goodness.
No product has inspired its cult fandom in the U.S. quite like the salted-egg fish skins made by the Singaporean brand Irvins. Tourists used to hoard bags of Irvins fish skins at the airport, but with distribution increasing in U.S. stores (especially in Asian supermarkets), more and more Americans are getting a taste as we speak.
Whether you get a bag of Irvins or a number of other heralded fish-skin brands, prepare to be pleasantly surprised. The smell when you crack it open might be a little disconcerting — I’ve heard people compare it to funky shrimp chips or goldfish flakes — but the taste is surprisingly delicate, with an airy crunch and a mild nuttiness that bolsters all kinds of intense seasonings, whether it’s rich salted egg or spicy Thai curry. You may find that you prefer the skins of some fish types more than others; salmon skin tends to be thicker and “fishier” than whitefish skin, for example.
Me? I like it all, although I wish these snacks were easier to find and impulse-buy; ordering online remains the most reliable way to find them, unless you live in an Asian enclave. And although I appreciate how much light manufacturers like Irvins and distributors like Costco are shedding on fish skin as a nutritious snack food, I hope that anyone who enjoys the chips will try to experiment at home, too.
You can very easily take the skin off, say, a side of salmon for four you got from the supermarket, scrape it clean of excess fat and cook the skin in a very low oven (like 150 degrees) until it’s dehydrated. When you break the pieces up and toss them into hot oil, they puff up, basically creating the homemade version of the bagged stuff.
However, an even simpler snack can be made by taking those clean pieces of fish skin and frying them in a medium-hot nonstick skillet, using a spatula to press and flip them. Once they’re sizzling and golden, drop them onto a paper towel and sprinkle with seasoning. Voila — crunchy, buttery, salty goodness.
Frankly, this is just the start. Maybe such an experiment will inspire you to try cooking more fish with the skin on; any type of snapper or salmon is a great place to start. But even on its own, crisp fish skin is a perfect garnish on a bowl of noodles, delicious in salads and incredible in a sushi roll. I even love the stuff when it’s simply blanched and dressed in a tangy soy-sauce dressing, as they do in Guangzhou.
Alright, so maybe it’ll be a while before Americans start digging into bowls of slippery boiled fish skin salad, but the simple pleasure of the fried stuff is an easy gateway to realizing that, perhaps, off-cuts may be the best part of any animal. We don’t need to make fashion leather out of fish skins. We oughta just eat ‘em. In fact, I’ll go even further: I admit I eat shrimp tails and shells, especially if they’re fried to crisp nothingness. Talk about the best shrimp chip ever.
If that seems odd, well, don’t come calling when Costco starts selling them in bulk, too.