On Fish

Conversation 1:

> Chinese person: Why don’t you like fish?

> Me: I like fish, it’s just hard to eat it with all these tiny bones in it.

> Chinese person: Don’t fish in America have bones in them too?

> Me: Yes, but the chef removes them. That’s his job.

Question: Do Westerners not eat a lot of (otherwise tasty) fish simply because they have too many bones?

Conversation 2:

> Me: I come from Florida.

> Chinese person: Oh, your home is by the ocean. You must eat a lot of fish there.

> Me: No, not really.

> Chinese person: Why not?

> Me: Ummm… I don’t know, we just don’t.

Question: Yeah, why don’t we? Simple economics?


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Greg Küntz Says: December 13, 2004 at 7:52 pm

    Americans don’t want to be subject to economies or food selection based on their locus, that’s not what the American culture is about, after all. We need what’s on TV: what everyone else has. Rich TV people don’t eat fish, they eat 20oz. steaks and cruddy McDonalds food. We’re not told by the our culture boxes to love fish, so why bother?

  2. What? Doesn’t America have seafood restaurants? Doesn’t America have people who relish a whole fish cooked to tender juicy perfection and served with chips and salad? WITH THE BONES IN, AS NATURE INTENDED? Admitedly there are some chinese fish dishes where you spend the whole time nibbling off the crispy deep-fried outside only to discover that there are only bones inside, and you ask yourself “So where did the meat go?” A lightly seasoned whole fish is easier to remove the bones from, after a bit of practice. But anyway, where am I going with this rant? John, admit it, you don’t really like fish. Those of us who love fish are not deterred by a few bones. We do not want the chef to turn our dinner into mash by trying to remove all the bones. There is a fabulous poem by Australian writer Judith Rodriguez about eating mudcrab, fingers hurting from cracking open the carapace to get at every last morsel of white meat, and I think anyone who loves seafood can relate to it.

    Waiting for an American to back me up on this…

  3. I am an American who has learned to cherish bony fish and uncooperative crustaceans during the last two years in China. I’m still not an expert: friends from Wenzhou are undaunted by fish filled with the tinest of bones, and can continue a conversation while neatly sucking them dry. For me nibbling and spitting still demands pretty intense concentration. But I see now how it all fits. The idea is to savor the flavor of the meat rather than stuff your gut with it. If you’re not as stuffed as you’d like to be the end of the meal get another bowl of rice.

  4. I’ll back you up, Todd. I think the chef has the job of taking off the heads, though, if I remember correctly. But grilling fillets doesn’t hold a candle to doing the whole thing.

    I remember summers back in Maryland sitting on a wooden bench at a table covered with brown paper and heaped with crabs and corn. Mosquitoes fly about, but there’s nothing you can do because your hands are all mucked up with Old Bay and crab guts. Heck, every time I visit relatives in Florida we go for grouper or some other bay fish.

    Bones aren’t all that bad. If the fish is cooked right then it’s not too hard picking. If it’s not cooked right, then it’s not worth eating, anyway.

  5. Spitting, or pulling tiny bones from your mouth is bad table manner. Besides, affluency allows Americans to only save the two meatest parts on a fish while Chinese suck every bone dry just to make sure we don’t miss a gram of edible flesh. It’s the same reason why we eat chicken feet, what started as economic necessity evolved into cultural delicacy.

  6. Da Xiangchang Says: December 14, 2004 at 4:06 am

    It’s the bones–that’s why Americans don’t like fish. Also, it’s not part of American culture to eat fish. America’s all about beef. You look back at American history, it’s all about cowboys pushing directing a bunch of cows to the railways. Steak and hamburgers–that’s American culinary culture. And it’s easier to eat a juicy T-bone than a bony mackerel–though, certainly not healthier! I guess Americans are lazy this way. There’s another reason: I don’t think most Americans know how to cook fish. Of course, that’s an overgeneralization, but consider the lobster (which is, of course, not a fish, but bear with me): in most American restaurants, it’s simply steamed and dipped in butter. What the ^%$#&@I( is that?!! You go to a Chinese restaurant, and they lovingly cook it in a thousand different spices and herbs, producing a most delicious dish. The difference is incredible. I would almost never eat fish in an American restaurant since, chances are, it’ll taste like crap. (Though, of course, I would NEVER eat a Western-style steak in China either for preciously the same reason! But take me to a steakhouse in America, I’m there!)

  7. I have the answer! Listen to me!!
    1) fish from the sea have less bones than river fish

    2) American culture was originally heavily influenced by British culture. At the time of colonialism/British Empire growing etc only poor people ate fish, because you could get them for free in the scummy Thames etc. Colonial/pioneering cultures such as Canada, the US, Australia, NZ were made up of lower class people, who on arriving to their dream land said:
    “sweet, now we are the landowners. We are the upperclass. THerefore let us not eat scody fish but let us consume several different kinds of supposedly expensive meats in one meal: beef, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, venison, rabbit and so on”
    There are lists of menus that important farmers and governors of New Zealand used when they had guests. There were no vegetables. Even the dessert was some kind of meat dish. I’m not joking. It was all dairy and meat for important occasions.

    By the time of the WWI, the average size of the Canadian and ANZAC soldiers was much larger than the Brit soldiers who were recruited out of industrial Englands stinking factories where they ate bread and fish from the scummy Thames.

    I love the taste of fish. But I’m just too lazy to eat food that requires me to find it. I like to put food in my mouth in big mouthfuls and chew it — bread, meat whatever. Sucking meat off bones so it sticks in my teeth just doesn’t appeal. The one bonus I think is that its more social to spend two hours over a meal than be able to gulp back your bangers and mash in 10 minutes.

  8. PS: the only fish that the average Kiwi bloke will eat is a slab of sharkmeat (no bones) deep fried in oily batter with chips… the classic fish and chips. Its not even counted as fish really…

  9. PPS: the comment I made about the Canadian/USA/Australia/NZ etc didn’t just waft out of my own odd little head… I read it in a book about New Zealand cuisine (what? you say.. NZ has a cuisine?? Apart from boiling the crap out of everything and slapping it on the table??)

  10. This is ridiculous. Americans like fish. I like fish. I eat it all the time (at least once a week). I’m eating fish tonight for dinner. Also, there are many, many good fish restaurants in my area. I am undaunted by bones per se, but I must admit that, while in China, I reluctantly gave up trying to eat the fish halfway through my trip on account of the dozens of tiny bones in every bite. The fish was quite tasty, though. I suppose when I move to Shenzhen in August I will have to perfect my bony fish-eating skills. Because I, an American, like fish.

  11. I agree with Da Xiangchang, I am sick and tired of American “seafood”. The restaurants here all serve tasteless and greasy Friday fried fish in my catholic dominated town. Everytime, I have to use a paper napkin to squeeze all the grease out and the fish itself taste like waxpaper/tofu. We ordered two big Maine lobsters in a fancy restaurant in Boston for 100US$ each, and they were just boiled whole and served with a big cup of butter and lemon on the side for dipping. It was a tasteless and wasteful experience IMM.

  12. What is the meaning of life?

  13. I love how a subject like fish somehow creates an opportunity to ridicule the “fat/lazy/stupid/cowboy” Americans.

    I can start to relate to how Chinese must often feel in the West, where every single topic related to China – no matter how trivial – creates an opportunity to attack the evil Chinese government.

  14. Da Xiangchang Says: December 14, 2004 at 8:19 am

    What the [fornication]?!! My comments were anti-American?!! Seriously, you’re not going to find a more strident cheerleader of America and its values than me. All I’m saying is that generally the Chinese cook much better fish than Americans do. I never said anything about Americans being “fat” (which they mostly are), “lazy” (Americans are actually the hardest working people in the world), “stupid” (Americans are arguably the smartest people in the world and certainly the most creative). And the cowboy motif is very much part of American culture–Marlboro Man, John Wayne, Wyatt Earp, etc. Even the Prez, a New-England patrician, considers himself a cowboy with his ranch and pickup trucks. There’s nothing wrong with associating Americans with cowboys, IMHO. Cowboys have an intuitive sense of right and wrong, and are men of few words and much action (as opposed to SOME other nationalities–a lot of words and no action–who will remain unnamed).

  15. Michael Max Says: December 14, 2004 at 9:10 am

    Have you ever met a real cowboy? The closest I came was while planting trees for a few months when I was in my early twenties. Yeah man, they was cowboys alright. Drunk and uneducated. Dangerously opinioned and without a lot of self constraint either.

    We glorify that TV and Movie cowboy, but I think we should remember they were just uneducated Victorian era migrant workers.

    Anyways, I like fish. I just don’t like that bony fish. And lots of the fresh water fish in China has kind of a muddy taste. I tend to eat the bigger fish (less little bones), I do love how they bring that wiggling rascal to your table for approval before throwing it flopping into the kitchen!

  16. I think the exact opposite. There’s too much fish in America. I don’t like to eat fish, so it seems like it’s everywhere! Friday fish frys, fish boils, shrimp (popcorn, scampi, cocktails), lobster, crab (cakes, patties, crumpets), and salmon. I always avoid these items as a main course when I go out to eat, and haven’t gone to Red Lobster for years.

    When I went to China I didn’t have any fish, but I’m not afraid to try.

  17. Bones bad. I very no like eat fish head. No want see fish eye. No want eat fish eye. Peel shrimp eat waste time. No want suck skinny crab leg, no meat just crab juice anyway.

  18. here is my theory

    chinese just love bones, crabs don’t have a lot of meat, but chinese are crazy with crabs because of the delicious shells. rich chinese just don’t eat meat, they spend a lot of money on food with bones

  19. I have to agree that in general American seafood don’t always do it for me. I’ve always thought of seafood at most restaurants as a variation on steak: a filet to look like steak, grilled like steak, then with tartar sauce on the side. Either that or deep fried and covered up in batter so it has no flavor. There are other recipes but most are pretty minimal. Esp. what you see on menus. I’d say most countries’ foods that I’ve tried, they eat more of the animal, and done in more variety of sauces, style, and spices. There’s plenty of stuff from Italy and France your average American (me) can’t stomach. I’m lost as to an explanation.

  20. It’s simple, IMO, Americans like fish, but they avoid eating fish with small bones. If the fish does have small bones (or large bones), they prefer a fillet. This goes for most of the nice American style fish restaurants I’ve been to.

    Chinese restaurants I’ve been to (in Chinese sections of Los Angeles) and the Chinese grocery stores there sell fish that most Americans have never seen. I love to eat at those restaurants, and I agree that it’s mainly for the flavor.

    So it’s not about liking or not liking fish, but about fish with small verus large bones (and preparation methods that emphasize meat versus methods that emphasize flavor — not just fish flavor but the flavor of the added seasonings, too).

    As for the meat and potatoes versus fish thread, that depends on what part of America you grew up in (or where your parents are from). I think Americans in general prefer beef over fish, but there are large sections of population where the opposite is true.

    BTW, nice historical overview Kaili…very interesting to think about it that way.

  21. Uhh… here in Florida we don’t eat alot of fish because of mercury, pesticides, and all that other nasty shit that people in China either ignore or just ingest through blissful ignorance. 99% of Florida freshwater has posted warnings about fish consumption being limited to one fish per week and for pregnant women none at all. Also native Florida seafood is heavily regulated… so most seafood eaten in Florida isn’t even from Florida.

    BTW… In Florida, at least back in the day, a real fish fry was the whole fish just like the Chinese do maybe just sans-head. When I was little we even at the fins.

  22. Da Xiangchang Says: December 14, 2004 at 12:34 pm

    It ain’t only the bones, though. Consider this: pork is not nearly as popular in America as beef. Why? It ain’t cuz of a pig’s small bones. Again, it’s all cultural. Like in, say, Eastern Europe, they love pork as much as the Chinese. Strangely in America, pork is often not eaten. Commercials in America often remind people that there’s pork, “the other white meat.” Again, I think it has to do with the fact that America is underpopulated with a lot of wide open grassy plains: cows can just roam around. In Eastern Europe (or China, for that matter), there’s not a lot of free land so pigs are often raised on farms too small to house cows; thus, the liking of pork.

  23. Red lobster is always my favourite American restaurant because I love their crab alfredo. With Mad Cow disease now found in America, we don’t eat beef very often, especially not hamburgers. We eat a lot of chicken and vegetarian dishes.

  24. Stuart,

    You said:

    I eat it all the time (at least once a week).

    Don’t you see a contradiction there?

    A lot of chinese people eat fish easily 3 or 4 times a week if not more. If you go to Wenzhou or Ningbo they eat so much seafood it kind of drives a foreigner crazy.

  25. Canton: You’re speaking for yourself and your circle of friends maybe (and me), but that I know of, beef sales and consumption haven’t gone down at all. At least, I heard that they dipped immediately after the first news but went right back up. The USDA is criminally on the side of beef sellers rather than on that of the public.

  26. After reading these comments, I must admit that small fish (10cm long or thereabouts) are hard to find in shops or restaurants in Australia.

  27. Actually, John, I don’t see a contradiction in my statement. “All the time” is an acceptable use of hyperbole. Obviously, I don’t eat fish, literally, all the time. But I eat it often, and I point out that I eat it “at least once a week” to indicate that I don’t go a week without eating it. Most weeks I actually eat fish more than once a week. Anyway, I didn’t really expect you to be a member of the verbal gestapo.

  28. Stuart,

    Not trying to nitpick. It’s just that compared to people who eat fish almost every single day, once a week is really not that much.

    I have to teach at a kindergarten every Monday night, and I eat my dinner there. 4 out of 5 times they feed me fish. I don’t think it’s just a Monday night dish, I think they eat a lot of fish.

  29. Reading this all , post and comments I have this to say:

    I’m soooo bloody hungry now! 🙂

  30. The mercury comment is really significant. We all agree Chinese (not to mention most other Asian people) eat a LOT of fish. What you don’t hear about so often is that wherever you go in the world fish are more and more contaminated with mercury. The fish diet that was so healthy for the parents of this generation may haunt their grandchildren or grandchildren’s children someday.

    Your chances of getting mad cow disease are maybe 1 in a million eating beef. But you’ll have a 100 percent chance of getting some mercury if you eat fish — probably too much if you’re an unborn baby and your mother is eating fish all the time.

  31. Pketh,

    Be like me if you’re hungry. Hmmm, this Filet-o-Fish is really satisfying my omega requirements and satisfies my 3 times a week rule for fish and the like. Next time you’re passing by McDonald’s, go for the fish burger wrapped in blue: “Filet-O-Fish” – 100% real fish and no bones. Hmm, so tasty. And don’t forget to SUPER SIZE the french fries and coke.

  32. I’ll bet that the Chinese would love “fish sticks”.

    It’s hard to know if Americans would enjoy a fish with lots of little bones because we don’t tend to fix fish with a lot of little bones. We do eat smelts, which are cooked & eaten whole (except for the head).

    I don’t think that sea/ocean fish have less bones. Usually they are larger & therefore the bones are larger — & easier to find.

    I think that out litigious American society keeps fish w/ small bones off the menus. In China the diner may spit out — or demurely remove from their mouth — the bones & throw them away. In America (unfortunately) the diner would spit out the bone(s), save them to prove his/her case, & then proceed to sue the restaurant, the restaurant’s supplier, & possibly King Neptune.

    Fish is not inexpensive in Florida. Most fish caught here (or close to here) is processed & shipped elsewhere. We end up paying the same prices for fish that people in other parts of the country do. Hoo-ray for equality!

  33. kikko man &Andy:
    as a CHINESE who enjoys eating fish,I’d like very much to tell you,you take eating fish so seriously!Yep,I admit that fish are contaminated.However,don’t you realize (or exactly,admit)the fact that vegetables are being contaminated either?Would you quit eating greenstuff based on this simple reason?So ridiculous!Even more,we Chinese haven’t ingested anything”nasty shit” through blissful ignorance like what kikko man mentioned.Before we eat fish ,we always use an implement(looks like scissors)to dig the fish’s guts( most of the nastise are there)out,making sure that the fish we eat is clean enough.Frankly speaking,I (and almost all the fish lovers)really don’t care whether the fish is contaminated,because I like fish,to hell with the contaminated,just enjoy the fish!shall we?
    and To Wilson:
    hehe~~once I had my partime job in McD’s,I also realized that quite a bit of foreigners’ favourite is Filet-o-Fish.(Woo~I can make one :p)I always give them the recommendation of “fish meal”—Filet-o-Fish,french fries and super coke.However,I prefer the fries to Filet-o-Fish,maybe due to the smell of the fish sauce,which I don’t quite care to~~and of course,the french fries is my perfection in McD’s!

  34. I grew up on a cattle ranch, my daddy, whom I pictured as the real cowboy, did not smoke, was not drunk nor acted in without restraint. As a matter of fact, one of the best mannered individuals I knew was a cowboy. I knew him when I was a young man and he has long since passed away. But then he did not fit all the stereotypes of being a cowboy anyway, he wasn’t even white but was a black guy. On our ranch, this was in one of the cow counties of Nevada, we raised not only cattle and hay, but also pork. I like pork, always have. I personally do not like to eat fish if I am not near the ocean. I like ocean fish. The best that I have enjoyed was in Japan, no bones, not even cooked; but it was good. While here in China I eat every thing the Chinese eat, except the bony fish. I never grew up learning how to spit out the little bones, haven’t been able to pick up that skill and do not enjoy choking on those little critters. So I eat the fish without the bones, and they have them here too. But every once in while I will sneak over to the Japanese restaurant and have some good sushi or sashimi. While I was in Vietnam, the saying went around that the man who has achieved everything is the man who lives in a western home, eats Chinese food, and has a Japanese wife. Right now I am living in a Chinese apartment, but I am getting there.

  35. ‘… except the bony fish,’ is right. And there’s plenty of deboned fish in Beijing, if you ask for it.

    Why would someone eat bony fish? My theory is that some people like nibbling. Bony fish, crabs, popcorn, and so on. Others, like me, prefer something more ‘solid’. Also, some people don’t mind working while eating. Me, I prefer everything bite size and ready to chew.

    I thought one of the aims of Chinese cuisine is to present everything bite-sized so that the diner has little work to do at the table. Bony fish, crabs, lobster, etc. seem the exception.

  36. All my Chinese friends in NZ adore fish sticks. They cook them in addition to whatever their having for dinner. Interestingly, they hate it if I cook anything with milk or butter because they don’t want to get fat. But they eat fish fingers (and chips for that matter) like they were going out of fashion. Aiyo!!

  37. All this sounds really fishy to me.

    The one thing I know is that steamed lobster dipped in melted butter is the most delicious thing on earth.

  38. You act quite nonchalant, Matt, what with you eating your 水族 brethren and all.

  39. Comet! Of course veggies are often contaminated but there are organic farms that have little if any pollution. Besides, even the pollution you’d ingest in veggies and other crops is insignificant compared to the mercury and other pollution found in animals, especially fish. Fish live and breath water and water is where all pollution is concentrated. The fish people eat are usually predators and have ingested countless other organisms that themselves are already contaminated. The concentration builds and the poisons are stored in their fat which fish have alot of… hence fish oil.

    BTW Comet shouldn’t have taken offense to my pollution comments… its not against Chinese its against pollution which most Chinese do NOT know much about… and also here “shit” means anything nasty not literaly “poop”.

  40. A fish without bones is NOT a fish. I hate fish sticks, fish nuggets, etc.

  41. guilty as charged

  42. stereoscope Says: December 18, 2004 at 2:44 pm

    fish is expensive, or more to the point, beef is extraordinarily cheap, in the usa

  43. oh re pork – this might be one of those things that are no longer relevant, but as a kid, someone my age now would have got a heaping helpful of propaganda against it, sorta like the moonies. well cept the moonies still rule the world, but i haven’t heard much about trichinosis in ages. otoh the whole ‘cook that pig meat real good or you’ll end up all [insert some graphic description of trich]. sort of like how they try and warn kids off doing stuff they might catch rabies from… or you can call me jay, or you can call me ray.. i can’t stop my feet!

  44. Where I come from (Louisiana), we remove the ones as we eat them. In most restaurants where my family and I frequent, only the innards have been removed before serving. One whole fried flounder, freshly caught, split between two? Heaven…. And, of course, the little sac au lait (white… something? i forget the English name) we remove the innards, then fry (and eat) them whole. The bones are usually crunchy by then. =)

  45. I should also state that I believe that the Chinese should learn not to waste the tasty brains of their crawfish. Honestly! It’s all good!

  46. Eric Rathbone Says: December 25, 2004 at 5:32 pm

    I believe the assertion that Americans don’t like fish is incorrect.

    Moreover, as a Texan I’d note that in Dallas, the fourth most popular category of restaurant (after American, Mexican, and Steakhouse, is the “Sushi Bar.”).

    Where I live in rural East Texas half my neighbors are cattle ranchers. Nonetheless there are a half dozen Sushi Bars within a 15 minute drive. The lakes teem with Bass, fishing is a big time sport and a lot of folks raise their own catfish. Shrimp and fish from the Gulf are always available also and appear to be quite popular.

    But yes, American cuisine tends to be simple. That’s because food is both abundant and of good quality.

    Complex cuisines arise out of the extremes of poverty and vast wealth often coupled with poor refrigeration technology.

    America, a country of abundance and an all but ubiquitous middle class cooks simply. After all, you could describe it as having an appreciation for the natural taste of food that emphasizes quality of ingredients and simplicity of presentation.

  47. I’m Chinese. And why I agree that Chinese food is generally more heavily flavored and complex than American food, with garlic, chilis, sauces, etc., something has to be said for simplicity.
    Sometimes, I think a simple boiled American lobster with salted butter is just as good as a simple steamed Cantonese fish with a little soy sauce.

  48. Who’d a thunk a topic like “Why don’t Americans like fish?” would attract 47 posts? Weighing in with my two jiao:

    I agree that breaded/buttered fish is tasteless and defeats the health benefits of fish.

    Most fish sold in supermarkets and used in restaurants is contaminated fish-farm junk. Even wild fish have variable levels depending on where they’re caught. For example, Alaskan salmon is cleaner than Atlantic salmon. Even worse than mercury are the PCBs. Your body will flush out mercury, but PCBs get into your bones and stay there. The problem of contamination is much more serious than with vegetables. There are no warnings or restrictions for pregnant women and children regarding eating produce, like there are with fish. Owing to health concerns, I pretty much stick to Alaskan salmon and non-albacore tuna.

    As for the America loves beef argument, American protein preferences have changed in the last hundred years. We used to eat more pork and beef and less chicken. Chicken used to be an expensive meat reserved for Sunday dinner. When Americans started dropping dead of heart attacks beginning in the 1950s, sales of lean white chicken meat rose and fatty beef and pork declined. Cows and pigs are now bred to be leaner, but chicken still retains an image as a healthier meat.

    What I don’t understand is why Americans have lost the art of homemade soup broth and soup stock. Soup bones are cheap, flavorful, and nutritious. I don’t eat chicken feet, but I do boil them (free range ones, of course) to extract the healthful cartilage.

  49. Yesterday someone I was talking to finally pinned down the real issue with fish bones: in the West, fish are usually either served whole (perhaps minus head and tail), or else they are filleted (the bones removed). In China, on the other hand, fish is either served whole (head and all of course), or it is chopped into pieces and boiled or fried with the bones still in it. Actually, it’s not just fish which fits this pattern. Australians like their barbecued “chook” (chicken) whole, bones and all, but if a recipe calls for bite-sized pieces then they will chop up boneless breast meat. In China, on the other hand, the whole chicken goes under the cleaver. Pork ribs get the same treatment—our local butcher keeps a short axe for the purpose of hacking pork ribs into 3-4 centimetre lengths.

    As for me, as long as it tastes good, I really don’t care whether there are bones or not.

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