Friday, August 08, 2008

Mama's Fish Head Soup ("hee-tao tung")

The story of...
Me and my fish head.
Me and my tantrum.

Our mother's fish head soup is quite popular with a lot of people. In fact, different individuals or families usually make a special request that she make this soup. One such day, I took the opportunity of shadowing her and finally acquiring her recipe.

Our mother uses ling cod head for her soup. She also always asks the fishmonger to clean/cut up the fish head for her. Hence, on the day of my shadowing, the fish head was already in undecipherable parts.

I took all the necessary photographs for this dish. However, I could not bring myself to post this without a picture of a COMPLETE fish head.

My plan: to go to the supermarket and take a photo of the head there.

Quite a number of days after our mother made the soup, JS and I walked into the supermarket. I saw one ling cod head remaining on display. I remembered the camera in the car, so I ran back to get it. Upon my return, JS was nowhere near the fish display. Hence, I walked around the store until I found her. I needed the moral support, see.

However, she refused to go with me to the fish display!

I finally worked my way back there (alone) and saw a couple of ladies ordering that final fish head, with the fishmonger proceeding to CHOP THAT HEAD UP!

I was too late!

We needed a few more things, so JS and I wandered around the store for a bit. Also, I was hoping that they would bring out more ling cod heads to replenish their display, thinking that perhaps they wanted to FIFO their fish heads (first in, first out); that is, they wanted that final one to be sold before bringing out the new ones.

As we passed by the fish display, I saw that they did indeed replenish the display with at least half a dozen heads!

Again, JS made her exit and refused to lend moral support. So I proceeded to ask the fishmonger to turn over one head (they were on the display "face down") and then asked if I could take a picture.


"But we've bought several before!" -- I said softly, knowing that I had already been defeated.

I felt very dejected and walked out of the store limply.

In my defense, I was in the produce section, trying to remember items that we needed to pick up!

Exiting the store and entering the car, I called my mother and had a very fruitless and whiny conversation about when she thought she would make fish head soup again.

"Not very soon."

I was in a very pouty mood. Wait, let me emphasize this: I was very sullen, sulky and sour, crabby, cranky and crotchety.

I was in a very pouty mood.

JS took matters into her own hands and, like yielding to a toddler's temper tantrum, drove us to the supermarket beside this supermarket (which are both, oddly enough, owned by the same company!) with the intention of purchasing one ling cod head.

Initially, what stopped us from buying a ling cod head was the cost. That is, there's no justification for buying a fish head for the sole purpose of taking its photograph!

But that's what we ended up doing.

I won!
(Sheepish teehee.)

We did make fish head soup again with this new head, but that's a post for another time.

So, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I present to you,
Mr. Ling Cod Head!

Warning: Gratuitous head shots up ahead.

He was HUGE!
This here container is a 9" by 13" pyrex baking pan.

This head was approximately 3.5 pounds.
Total cost: $21-something!

Nice gills

Mr. Ling Cod Head was actually just half a head. He was split down the middle, see!

OK, now that I've gotten that out of my system, let's proceed with the rest of the recipe!

(Well, I did have to get my money's worth in terms of photographs. I did spend $21 dollars!)

Mama's Fish Head Soup
("hee-tao tung" in Fukien/Hokkien)

This recipe has a very large yield. My mother is used to making this soup for a large number of people.

Serves 10 to 20 people.
(Mind you, that's the number of people, not the number of servings. We assume that each person will have more than 1 serving, around 2 to 3.)

Ingredient quantities can be halved quite easily. Also, you can adjust each ingredient according to your taste.


8 liters water (approximate)
1 ling cod head
6 ling cod steaks

The steaks aren't necessary. Mama likes the soup to have extra fish meat is all.

Here is the fish head in undecipherable parts. (And yes, it is wise to have the fishmonger cut up the head. Mr. Ling Cod Head and I had a little fight before I was able to chop him up and remove his gills.)

A note:
When our mother made her soup, the fish head she bought was EVEN LARGER THAN THE ONE I BOUGHT. She said the cost came to about $50!!!

ginger: 3-inch piece, sliced
garlic: 10-12 cloves
leeks: 3 (include the green part)
green onions: 5

Szechuan Vegetable: 1 cup
These are also called "preserved radish" (like the one used in Mama's giniling version 3).

Before using, Mama says to soak these in water for a few minutes (10 minutes, let's say) and then rinse. (More info here and here.)

satay: 6 tablespoons
The satay gives a certain je ne sais quoi flavor in the soup, so it shouldn't be too strong. Just a hint will do. This is the brand we have at home.

Tianjin Preserved Vegetable: 1/4 cup
These are a type of preserved cabbage, I believe. It comes in a cool little container like the one below. (More info here)

tofu (regular/medium firm): 2 packages of 700g each

Napa cabbage: 1 huge head (or 2 to 3 small heads)

Look at the yield of that napa!


Put the water into a big pot and bring to a boil. When it has come up to the boil, turn heat down and keep water hot.

In the meantime, in a large saute pan, pan-fry the fish pieces. They don't have to be too brown. This is to add more flavor and also help the fish not to disintegrate too easily in the soup.

Remove fish pieces and set aside.

Next, saute the ginger until slightly browned, then add garlic. Next, add the leeks, green onions, rinsed Szechuan vegetable, satay and Tianjin preserved vegetable.

Remove ginger.
Our mother likes to remove the ginger so as not to have an overpowering ginger flavor in the soup. However, if you like ginger, feel free to leave the pieces in.

Put the sauteed aromatics and flavorings into the boiling/simmering water. Add the fish. Try to be gentle so as not to break apart the fish pieces.

Bring back up to a boil then turn down the heat to simmer, covered. Do not stir too much. Simmer for approximately 15-30 minutes.

The tofu and napa cabbage are added towards the end.

Mama likes the tofu to absorb the flavors, so she adds them first. Again, be gentle when placing the tofu into the soup. Simmer the soup, covered, for another 15 minutes.

Then, add the cabbage and cover once again, until the cabbage is the tenderness you desire.
(In this specific case, since our pot was very full, she braised the cabbage in a separate pot with some of the broth of the soup.)

Adjust seasoning.

And there you go, a fish soup just like Mama's. This soup is one of those Asian-types that are, in the words of those dubbed judges in the Japanese Iron Chef, "subtle, yet profound."

We're submitting this to Culinarty's Original Recipes.

More information here.
The Round-ups here

Mama Dishes
Mama's Silkie Chicken ("Dyong Kwe")
Mama's Philippine-style Fruit Salad
Mama's Cilantro Beef Shin
Mama's Black Peppercorn Shortribs
Mama's Fish Head Soup
Mama's Giniling
Mama's Giniling, v4 and v5
Mama's Ampalaya (Bitter Melon)
Ma-Kut (Pork Bone) Soup


  1. Yes, I know what you mean by "subtle yet profound." You will surely win the Iron Chef with this dish!

    Hee Tao Tung is also one of my family's favorite. But we do not have the humongous fish head that you have! and so fresh! Inggit ako...

  2. Btw, this is my first time to be the first commenter. Yay! Happy 8-8-8!

  3. Hee, I am totally convinced that this is a fantastic tasting soup :D Now can I have a bowl? :p

    Kudos for spending $21 so u can take a photo of the fish head ... that's dedication! :D

  4. Subtle yet profound works for me :) May I have a bowl please? Moms and their recipes rock!!!

  5. Wow, I'm going to make fish soup today!!!

    I saw live ling cod selling for $6.58 a pound at Save-On Foods. I'm going to get a small ling cod. Yummy!!

    Thanks for posting, TS.

  6. You know what...I'm sooo not a fish head person, but this will make me reconsider!


  7. Oh that fish head scares me a little! & I have to admit fish head soup does too, does that make me a wimp?

  8. Mr. Ling Cod is such a big head!:D

    The soup looks so delicious. I think I've seen whole ling in the fish monger but not sure if I can buy only the head. They're quite large and I'm the only fish lover in my house.:)

  9. When you were telling the story of not wanting to buy the fish head just for the pictures, I thought "what's the big deal?" But then when you mentioned the prices of $21 and $50 for fish heads?!!! Holy cow! I can see why your mother wouldn't want to make this all the time. How much do the steaks cost?

  10. Haha! The trouble you went through just to get that fish head. And expensive! I love preserved radish. I like the slight sour notes with Chinese cabbage and tofu. Mmmm.

  11. Your fish head soup looks so tasty. The soup in our house was similar but I don't think it had satay sauce. It was a creamy white colour and had boiled peanuts.

    I didn't realise fish heads were so expensive. I once saw a huge Ling cod head at the fish shop on Pender Street - it must have just been killed. The head was severed from the body but the mouth was still opening and closing! It attracted quite a crowd of gawkers.

  12. Hilarious. Thanks for persevering and getting the shot of the head. It rocks--as does the soup.

  13. I have never cooked a fish head but it looks like fun.

  14. Yum! This soup makes me wish winter would come sooner. Nothing beats the cold than a warm bowl of fish head soup.

  15. Yum. This looks so good. I started drooling around about the first picture of the head, and kept going all the way through. In fact, I haven't stopped. I have to go and wipe my chin now... :)

  16. That was a fun read. It just wouldn't have been the same without Mr. Ling Cod Head photos. Tantrum justified.

    I would adore that soup!

  17. I would so eat that soup. I love that brand of satay you use! Its transforms so many dishes. Great pictorial.

  18. I must say, with absolutely no reservation, that your post on Fish Head Soup, probably my wife's and my favorite Asian soup, is the best and most thoroughly documented that I have ever seen.

    You are quite talented, and we really appreciate your sharing your recipe (method).

  19. This sounds really, reallyg good. But I can barely find good fish here, there's no way I can find a fish head.

  20. I don't know if I could ever eat something's head. You make it look tasty, but I'm kind of a weenie like that.

  21. My Ghanian mother swears that fish heads are the most delicious part of the fish...I still can't wrap my head (pun intended) around it.

  22. wow.. yummy dish. i love fish head! hahhaha... do you suck the eye out too??? heehehe...

    mr. ling cod is pricey indeed, but i'm sure you enjoyed that..anything for the blog, huh?

    great post...and i tagged you, by the way!

  23. Wow, why so much for the fish heads? Isn't the point of things like this that they're cheap?

    Also, (I will totally admit ignorance of Chinese regional cuisine here) does your mom have a secret recipe for soup dumplings, aka xiao long bao? My husband and I are total addicts, but haven't found any yet in Paris.

  24. I'm glad you finally got your fish head pictures! The soup looks wonderful.

  25. Oh my goodness! That looks incredible...I adore soup, I could seriously eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and often do, lol)...your mama's looks simply fabulous! :)

  26. I love Fish Head Soup with a passion! I crave it all winter! My mom's version is very different...I'm hoping to shadow her this winter to get her recipe.

  27. I love hee tao tung anytime! But it is hard to get unless I cook it myself!

  28. ning:
    Hahaha, I guess 8-8-8 gave you good luck.

    Teehee. "Practically", I couldn't do it. But the tantrum-thrower in me couldn't help having a fit!

    kat & sweetbird & esi:
    It's not scary at all. It's just a light fish broth. =) I believe the head just gives more flavor because it's bony and such. One can use fish bones and flesh, I would think. The name just wouldn't have the same ring to it. ;)

    At the (Chinese) supermarket, they have all sorts of fish heads: ling cod, Atlantic salmon, something called "big head" fish head (I don't know what type of fish it is!), and etc etc etc.

    Haha, yeah. At least the one I got was only $20 as opposed to the $50. I don't know how much the ling cod steaks cost: umm, about $8 per pound? Not too sure.

    How do you make the broth milky in color? And ooh, boiled peanuts! Do you wait until the peanut are really, really soft? Or not too soft?


    Thanks! We're getting to the tag soon!

    The fish head was only about $3/pund. It was just big/heavy.

    Sorry, we (mother included, haha) are acyually wuite ignorant about Chinese food. More or less.

    Oooh. Yeah, I would love to see different versions.

    True, I don't think I've seen it in any restaurant. I guess it's more home cooking?

  29. Damn! I thought the idea was to use fish head because it was CHEAP! I could put a down-payment on a house for what you spent on a fish head! Damn!

  30. drfugawe:
    Haha. True. Although, granted, it did feed A LOT of people.

  31. Hello from Toronto!

    How awesome! Looking for a fish head recipe I ended up in your blog! Love this recipe and will try it. I would love to link to your blog.

    Visit me anytime.

    ~ Gabriela ~

  32. Gabriela:
    Thanks for the visit! Glad you found the recipe you were looking for here. =)

  33. I;ve got to try this! Caught three fish today (Brown trout) and boiled the head to feed my cat. But now I think I will use the stock for soup! Thank you!

  34. You are fabulous to show us non-Asian's the cans of everything. I go to the Asian Market here in Dallas, but without your pictures I have little idea what I am trying to buy/get.

    Thank you so much!

  35. Anon:
    Oh wow, lucky cat of yours! =)

    Welcome! Actually, it's for our information too. Believe me, I get so confused staring at all the same but different jars of Chinese ingredients in the supermarket! =)


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