It's not often that dinner stares right back at you. But when I visit the kitchen of London Thai restaurant Smoking Goat, a clay pot is plonked down in front of me and I find myself looking into the face of a cod fish. The fish head—eyes, brain, lips, and all—is about to go into my curry.
Head chef Ali Borer grins. "You know, the lips have a really good flavour to them," he says. "We went to this one restaurant in Penang in Malaysia which is the place to eat fish head curry. We had it with a grouper and the lips are a delicacy. When they've been cooked they become really gelatinous and you suck on them—tasty."
I can't help wrinkling my nose. I'm down with a bit of offal but fish lips might be a body part too far.
"There are a lot of dishes when we're in Thailand and travelling around that we want to put on the menu, but you're not sure if they're going to work here," admits Ben Chapman, co-founder of Smoking Goat and Thai-inspired Kiln down the road. He's joining us in the kitchen and also part of the "we" that Borer refers to when talking about the Malaysian fish head pilgrimage.
In addition to learning the best way to get the brains out of a curried fish head (more on that later), the trip became the inspiration for Smoking Goat's recently launched Monday night offal menu. For one night a week at the restaurant, all the bits that people might usually chuck—heart, kidneys, liver, gizzards, and heads—are transformed into inventive Thai dishes.
"A lot of people get weirded out by it and they forget how tasty offal is. And these nights allow us to push the boundaries a bit," says Borer as he starts gathering samphire and okra for the curry. "It's like people ordering a fillet steak instead of a decent sirloin or decent rib eye. They think if it's more expensive, it's better."
He continues: "Offal is the same as any other ingredient. You can have the best ingredients in the world or you can have the stuff that people would usually throw away, but if you don't treat it properly, then it's always going to taste bad. And if you look after it, it's going to taste great."
I'm ready to be convinced.
To the cod head, which has already had a good braising, Borer adds stock and a deep orange base sauce for the curry.
Chapman, keeping a watchful eye over the preparations, says: "The one we had in Penang is served in an assam style. This is one is similar so you can taste the Indian spicing that's come down through Myanmar."
"We use a salted and smoked mackerel stock which gives it an extra umami punch," explains Borer. "There's quite a lot of turmeric in it and ginger instead of galangal, less lemongrass and more cardamom. There's cumin and coriander seeds and I'm using black peppercorn, instead of white peppercorn."
He continues: "In Penang, you see them dipping the heads into the same pot so I imagine at the end of the day, that curry is going to be one of the best things you're going to taste. It keeps getting better and better. We've had to come up with a way to get that flavour but doing it slightly differently and so it works in the restaurant."
"And gets past Health and Safety," chips in Chapman.
Samphire, okra, and mussels are then added to the pot and it cooks in the embers of the open grill's fire.
Fish head curry gently bubbling, I ask Chapman and Borer how often they came across offal during their Thai research trip.
"You tend to find that offal is used in Thai food. With dishes like laab [a ground meat salad], if you make it with just duck meat, then you don't have the rich flavour that comes from offal. It's missing something," says Chapman. "People here over-season laab with more sugar or fish sauce, but actually what you need is the offal."
Borer agrees: "Offal has that iron taste that uplifts a dish and works well with Thai flavours. I've used a lot of the produce before at other restaurants but never done it this way. Something like monkfish liver is a new one to me. I only started using that here. It worked really well with the green curry spices. We tend to come up with a paste or seasoning and then we'll think about what will go with it."
And including offal in dishes doesn't just do wonders for the flavour. It's also helping make a dent in the fight against food waste.
"I never like wasting anything and we always make as much as possible with everything," says Borer. "For example, we were getting in pork belly and there was always a lot of meat left on the rack. They were getting used for what everyone uses them for—baby back ribs. But I started breaking that down so you have mince and then you have the pork bones to make a stock."
He continues: "I have introduced a little bit of offal into the regular menu to test the water and see if people would eat it. A lot of the dishes sold well like the duck offal laab and fried lamb kidneys with nahm prik pao, a sweet chili jam."
It was after a trip on the Cornish boats that supplies the restaurant that Borer's respect for the ingredients grew.
"I know how hard it is to pick a crab. One of the guys had tennis elbow because he'd been crab picking so much," he tells me. "And the care they take is incredible. The supplier we use vac-pacs the fish before putting it on ice so there's never any ice going directly on the fish. And if they miss the delivery pick-up, they'll race in their own vans to the depot so it makes it to London."
Despite the care taken by fishermen, more than half of fish caught in the UK gets chucked as offcuts. Some food entrepreneurs are attempting to combat this waste by making fish scrap crisps or turning skin into fish leather bags. Borer hopes his contribution will also go some way in making a difference.
"All the crab shells that are picked for meat, get thrown away. I asked the supplier to keep three kilos aside so I can make a stock," he says. "And the fish heads were just going straight in the bin as well. Although the supplier has cottoned on to what I'm doing with them, now I'm putting in a regular order, and they've upped my prices!"
Talking of those fish heads, the curried one in the kitchen is ready. Borer piles jasmine rice into bowls, along with a generous helping of the aromatic curry. Finally, he scoops out the cod head onto a plate.
"The guy we were with in Penang showed us how it's a bit like a Chinese puzzle to get to the brain," he says. "There's this click thing at the back of the skull. But everyone who orders it here just digs right in. You just go at it!"
With the curry's heady—no pun intended—aroma filling the room, I don't need telling twice.