Help me overcome my seafood fears
May 13, 2018 2:26 AM   Subscribe

My family didn’t often eat seafood aside from pre-filleted fish and pre-prepared shrimp. I want to get over my hurdles with eating shellfish and dealing with whole fish. If you’ve done the same, any tips?

I generally think of myself as a non-picky eater, but there are some foods that I would like to eat more of—if only I can get over my initial fear/repulsion.

I can’t do whole shrimp, or crayfish, etc; their legs and eyes freak me out. Similar with whole fish: if it still has a face attached, I’m not comfortable. Most shellfish I won’t eat or prepare still inside the shells.

I live in Japan. I would like to stop having to avoid a good amount of the food available here. I know if I can just get used to handling the food, like I did with raw chicken, then there’s a good chance I’ll be fine. But I’m scared and feel ridiculous for it.

I nearly gathered up enough courage to buy a whole fish the other day, so I could just get it over with; but then I realized I don’t have a filleting knife and there went that burst of inspiration.

What other things should I prepare? Mental states of mind included. I’m also looking for personal anecdotes: have you done the same or something similar with “nemesis” foods? What helped you? Did it take multiple tries or were you fine after the initial attempt?

I live alone and have no one around to hold my hand, so this is me trying to crowdsource it..
posted by lesser weasel to Food & Drink (7 answers total)
Graded exposure? You could eat a pre-cut fillet while looking at a picture of a whole fish. Then try a video. Work up to touching a whole frozen body. Then a fresh one. Then manipulate the fins or shrimp legs. Then cook it and throw the critter away. Next close your eyes and try one bite, then keep your eyes open, then take two bites, etc.

I don't have any true phobias but I'm squeamish about cooked berries, artificially colored liquids and fake grape flavors. It's a strangely associative venn diagram of disgust. If I have to, I just close my eyes and knock it back. The faster I do it the faster it's over. It helps that you like the flavor of seafood. For me, the visuals and texture of "purple things" aren't inherently unsavory, I've just come to associate them with my despised taste. Hence shuteye! But don't let the anxiety build up. Prep your plate and go for it. Focus on the good qualia. I love whole shrimp tails, so crunchy and translucent! Talk to yourself about how great it is. Maybe uh, pretend you're an ocean predator rounding up your trophies?!
posted by fritillary at 4:10 AM on May 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think it's a good idea to start with the fish. Maybe think about the fact that chickens also have a head and face, even though they're not traditionally served as such. Feathers are kind of modified scales. so fish are not so far off from chicken. Fish have skeletons like other meats, too. Then tackle invertebrates later....
posted by Tandem Affinity at 6:18 AM on May 13, 2018

I'm actually happy for you that you changed your mind on buying the whole fish. Years ago, and with little instruction, I tried to clean some fish I had caught. Bad move! It was stinky and gross as hell to me, even though I was a slasher movie fan at the time (maybe because!) I was put off of any fish for a long time after that. So, maybe wait on that project for a bit, and also maybe watch an expert cleaner/fillet-er in real life at a fish market.

- I don't know if you're American like me, but if so it could help to FRY ALL THE THINGS- like batter-dip/tempura deep-fry them, or try an oven-baked equivalent recipe. This dulls the fishiness somewhat, and is a familiar texture. Just try to move past this point with other techniques cooking the less offensive finds.

- You could introduce yourself to sushi by first trying some of those abominations that are sold as sushi in the US, like a "Philadelphia roll" (includes cream cheese, which I love. YMMV.) I reckon you won't find it for sale in Japan in public, but you could make some, and it could ease you into comfort and thus willingness to try the real thing later.

You're definitely in a good place for this kind of change. Good luck!
posted by JulesER at 7:16 AM on May 13, 2018

I don't know, I think that handling and prepping a whole fish is a lot more difficult than working with shrimp or other shellfish. How are you on bivalves? Like, mussels or clams? Because they don't have any wiggly bits and are extremely simple to prepare, but it's often best to cook and eat them in the shell, so that could be a low-stakes way to get used to handling shells and stuff, as well as maybe getting used to a texture you don't have many positive associations with. Simple steamed mussels comes to mind as a recipe that's straightforward and easy to adjust to what you have on-hand.

For shrimp you could start with "shrimpmeat", I don't know what it's called in Japan but I'm talking about the teeny tiny little shrimp that come precooked and peeled in a container. No wiggly bits. You can make things like shrimp salad or shrimp cakes with them, or toss into a warm pasta or mixed rice dish, just like you'd use some prepped cooked meat pieces. I find that the tiny shrimp have a big burst of yummy flavor so you first work on having positive associations with the taste, you know? Then maybe look for some prawns that have been prepped but still have the shells and tails on - but have been beheaded and deveined. Just rinse and pat dry, and toss with a bit of salt and lemon. Saute in a pan until pink and opaque on both sides. Think of the shrimp shell like the corn husk or banana leaf wrapping on a tamale, that you have to open up to get to the bits inside. Oh, or like the skin on a roasted sweet potato! Find something that you have positive yummy feelings about and transpose the action onto shrimp.
posted by Mizu at 7:23 AM on May 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

I buy whole small trout that have been gutted. So, they have heads and tails, and scales and bones, but they’re ready to bake (stuffed with sliced lemon and onion..). Maybe start with that? I love fish, am totally unsqeamish, but I neve buy ungutted fish if I can help it.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 8:34 AM on May 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Is there anyone who would like to cook with you? It sounds like being alone makes the adventure harder.
posted by SemiSalt at 2:20 PM on May 13, 2018

+1 for the cooking buddy.

I think you're being a little too ambitious. Filleting a fish is a very achievable skill, one that takes less than an hour to learn, but it's not necessary to eat fish.

Buy another whole fish and steam it in the microwave with ginger and scallion:

After it's cooked, it'll be much easier to fillet:

If the head bothers you, take any knife or any large pair of scissors, and cut it off.

Also, if you want to fillet a raw fish, you can do it with any old knife. I do it with a 6" x 3" Chinese cleaver or a 3" paring knife. The technique is approximately the same for any flat fish and any knife longer than your fish is tall (from back to belly). You just need a few more strokes for a shorter knife.

You will waste more of the fish than is shown here, in the beginning, and that's okay.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:35 PM on May 13, 2018

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