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A Swim Bladder Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

There is nothing more boring than serving beef tenderloin and mashed potatoes. Fish swim bladders are perfectly edible, nutritious, and beautifully interesting.
Flickr photo via Norwegian Seafood Council

Talk to a chef about nose-to-tail eating, and they'll tell you it just makes sense. No one wants to throw away food, but beyond the ethical and financial reasons, there is something a little ingenious in taking a gastronomically neglected part of an animal and turning it into something delicious. You've probably eaten offal or snacked on the collar of a fish, but have you ever eaten its swim bladder?


Chef Todd Perrin of Mallard Cottage in Quidi Vidi, just on the outskirts of St. John's, Newfoundland, would like you to try some. He's been cooking with traditional ingredients from the province in new and refined ways, using what was once relegated to the back pages of old cookbooks like Fat-Back & Molasses and serving it up with Newfoundlander pride.

There is nothing more boring than serving beef tenderloin and mashed potatoes. Someone will always eat beef tenderloin or cod filets, but if we don't further the cause of eating things like tongues, and cheeks; pork and beef hearts; and even seals' loins, livers and, hearts; it will end up becoming dog food. It doesn't need to skip over humans: it's perfectly edible, nutritious, and beautifully interesting food.

As a young fella I was a fairly hearty eater, but "cod sounds"—fish swim bladders—didn't look like fish, or anything edible. We had them on occasion when I grew up in the 70s and 80s. I was used to seeing filets, but I had never seen anyone harvest them before. I thought, Oh cool, another part of the fish we can eat!

In Newfoundland and Labrador, we land dozens of species of fish, but if you to go a fish shop, you'll only get three or five kinds.

It wasn't as prevalent where I was, near St. John's, Newfoundland, but I do remember the first time my grandfather described what they were and told me we were going to eat them. I couldn't believe it. Really pop, we can eat that? When I first met my wife, one of the first dishes I had with her family was a stew her mom made with cod sounds. People got away from eating the odd bits around the 70s and 80s, and now people are getting back into it.


Historically, cod sounds were typically packed in salt, boiled, and eaten in stews. That's kind of the classic way. You would never see fresh sounds, because back then everything was salted. The texture isn't that much different from fresh, almost like sausages casings or the nice fat on the rib eye or thin pork ears. They're a little bit gelatinous, but not as much as cod cheeks and tongues, and they don't have a particularly strong taste.

But the way that the fishery has changed: cod sounds, cheeks, and tongues are difficult to get because fishermen and fish processors don't see value in them. Sometimes, they don't even get to the market because the fishermen keep them for themselves. The processors aren't in the market of selling them; only the filets. That's why chefs—myself included—like to buy nose-to-tail because we get to use all the bits, but even then it's not easy to buy whole fish.

READ MORE: The Ethics of Eating Fish That'll Die Pretty Soon Anyway

It is frustrating because we're up against the food industry. In Newfoundland and Labrador, we land dozens of species of fish, but if you to go a fish shop, you'll only get three or five kinds. You're a victim of the forces that exist. Fish that is caught in sight of land in Newfoundland gets sent to the United States or China, where fish bladders are considered a delicacy.

[We serve them] because we can; they're part of the fish. We've stewed, curried, boiled, and fried them up like chicharrones. There is a business reason to do it: We buy the whole fish, so why not sell the whole fish? I get my back up at industrial food systems telling us what we have to eat: you can eat beef, but it has to be this kind of beef and this cut. Any time I can take any animal—whether it be it a codfish or a pig—and butcher it ourselves, like other chefs, I get to use parts that would otherwise go to waste. It's interesting for me and our cooks to use them and it's worth it for the look on people's faces.

One of the questions we often get from people—especially journalists—is how people react to eating cod sounds. But in kitchens, we live in a world where people have diets and allergies; we're likely to get as strong of a reaction when we put bread on the table. It sounds ridiculous but it's true; it's really not any different from another dish. If they want it, they'll order it, and hopefully, they will like it.

If you're gonna take something out of the wild and kill it, you're committed to it. You don't want to throw it away. That animal gave its life for you, so human empathy asks that you use as much of it as you can, and be responsible with it.

As told to Simon Thibault