The sheepshead fish is a unique type of fish found in warm waters in the southern United States and the rivers and coastal areas of Mexico. It is a full-bodied fish often mistaken for perch, with distinctive black and white stripes. It is also very closely related to the drum, which is frequently used in Cajun cuisine. The most interesting feature of the sheepshead is its ability to prey on hard mollusks and crustaceans that other fish stray away from.
The sheepshead fish has a jaw and tooth structure that allows it to crack and penetrate the shells of creatures like young clams, mussels, and adult shrimp. For this reason, sheepshead are difficult to catch using traditional bait, hook, and line methods. Netting is the most fruitful way of landing a large catch of sheepshead, and only specimens measuring 12 inches from jaw to pinched tail can be legally harvested.
Sheepshead are interesting fish in that they are extremely full-bodied, but only produce a minimal amount of edible meat. The fish is mainly composed of bone, skin, and fat. This makes it easily categorized as a delicacy, and it can only be found on select menus. Many restaurants in Mexico choose not to feature this fish because it has a unique taste and is difficult to use in hearty dishes.
People who are lucky enough to taste a traditional rendering of sheepshead are in for a treat. The meat of these fish has an extremely high amount of oil, which makes the meat rich and savory. Many people choose to fillet these fish, but must deal with a large amounts of bones. Calcium and lime deposits throughout the bodies of sheepshead make them difficult to eat in the same way as other panfish.
Sheepshead fish have the taste and smell of typical carp-like fish when cooked. The flesh is light and flaky, though there isn’t much edible meat compared to body size. Most often, the meat is cooked in nuggets and tenders rather than whole fillets. Many seafood cooks prefer to separate the dark and fatty portions of the fish from the muscular and whiter portions. The meat of the sheepshead head fish is surprisingly dense enough to use for smoking, and tastes wonderful with many different continental smoke mixes.
Mexican restaurants love to serve sheepshead fish in either taco or soup form. Since the meat is rather benign, it presents many uses for traditional dishes. Traditional Mexican cuisine also recognizes that sheepshead fish is best used when served in savory chunks, rather than whole fillets.
The two most popular dishes featuring sheepshead are fish tacos and seafood soup. The flesh of sheepshead is light and tasteless compared to other fish like carp, bass, and perch. After it is separated from the bone, it is quickly cooked and paired with fresh ingredients like cabbage, avocado, and peppers. The oils in sheepshead meat tend to enliven the tastes of complimentary ingredients. It is exceptionally useful in light summer dishes.
Sheepshead soup is a tasty and satisfying dish. Large chunks of sheepshead are rendered at a boiling point so the meat falls from the skeleton. This is similar to the way continental chefs separate chicken and pork meats. Once separated, the fish bones are removed leaving behind an extremely rich and oil-filled broth. Ingredients like mushrooms, leafy greens, peppers, and corn starch for thickening are added, along with any available regional spices. A pleasing and saucy soup is created with the slightest hint of saltwater.
Sheepshead fish is not for the connoisseur who loves a hearty fish portion with every dish. It is a difficult type of seafood to work with in the kitchen, but traditional Mexican chefs always do it justice. It is best served simply, and without culinary pretense. It tends to be a catalyst for spice and herb combinations, via the highly palatable and tender meat.
If you’re looking for more authentic Mexican dishes, visit El Golfo de Mexico in San Marcos, TX.