Like any conscious eater raised in the Church of Bourdain, I keep an open mind about what’s on my plate. From lamb brain to duck tongue to cod sperm, I’ll try anything once, knowing that one society’s taboos are another’s delicacies.
But there are some culinary hurdles I haven’t been able to surmount yet. I discovered this at the end of a press dinner at Germany’s hottest new Mexican-influenced seafood restaurant (don’t laugh, it’s great!), when I was presented with one last dish: a crab eclair.
There are seafood dishes that resemble dessert, like the French Laundry’s famous salmon “ice cream cones.” And there are desserts that look like seafood, like Japanese taiyaki (fish-shaped waffles filled with red bean paste). This was neither of those things. It was a perfectly executed version of the classic French pain à la duchesse, given a slight fusion twist with a sugary kombu glaze and a white chocolate-yuzu cream filling…that just so happened to have shredded spider crab in it.
Good crab tastes sweet, and this one—imported straight from Brittany by the Berlin-based seafood importers Fish Klub, who also ran the restaurant—was certainly good. But it was also unmistakably a crustacean, and experiencing its fishiness, however mild, in a dessert context set off alarms in my brain.
I wondered what was going on. After all, I regularly scarf down all sorts of other “unconventional” dessert ingredients without a second thought: black beans in vegan brownies, potato chips in cookies, bacon on donuts, bacon on cupcakes, bacon in fudge…I even love pumpkin pie, which my Germans friends think is weird as hell. So why not end my meal on a fishy note?
The man behind the dessert, Francisco Hernandez, seems to have no qualms about combining seafood and French pastry. “The idea came from the fragrant, floral aroma of the crab, and the chunky texture of the claw meat,” he explains. Originally from Mexico City, he worked in French, Mediterranean, and German restaurants before ending up as Fish Klub’s chef. “I was thinking that most people would steam or boil it and pair it with clarified butter. But nobody’s gone so far as to use it as the last dish on the menu.”
Executing his idea, he says, took about a month of trial and error. “I almost got to the point of giving up. What changed my perception was using fresh yuzu for the acidity instead of a lime-lemon mix.” Now, he says, the dessert is a hit among restaurant patrons. “They’re intrigued at the beginning, but amazed after the first bite.”
He had one other inspiration for the dish, going back to a trip he took years ago to Dolores Hidalgo. Best known as the birthplace of Mexican independence, the Guanajuato municipality is also famous for its homemade ice cream sold by street vendors all over the city center. “They have insane flavors over there—avocado, mole, mezcal…” The one that made the biggest impression, though, was camarón: shrimp.
It turns out that novelty ice cream is one of the most common fishy desserts out there, especially in towns that thrive off seafood tourism, like Bar Harbor, Maine, where the sweet shop Ben & Bill’s has sold lobster ice cream since 1988. Made with butter, vanilla, and generous chunks of claw and knuckle, the concoction—previously described on The Takeout as “a little bit like frozen lobster bisque”—is a favorite among tourists, even if few order it more than once. In one interview, the shop’s manager pointed out that the pairing was more natural than it sounded. “Since most people eat their lobster with melted butter, to shun lobster in cream, albeit frozen, is slightly hypocritical.”
What about oyster ice cream? Contrary to historical hearsay, George Washington and Dolly Madison never dug into an icy bowl of bivalves, but a recipe for a savory version of the dish does show up in a 19th-century cookbook. More dessert-like is the kaki furai soft serve sold in the Japanese fishing town of Hinase, garnished with a pair of fried oysters and a drizzle of soy sauce. It’s “milk from the land combined with milk from the sea,” rhapsodized one reviewer. How similar is it to the s’moyster, the oyster, chocolate, and marshmallow sandwich supposedly advertised in the ‘70s and definitely recreated by The Takeout’s Dennis Lee? You’d have to go to Japan to find out.
The primary draw of all these treats, s’moyster included, is that they’re really not bad. But do fish desserts extend beyond gimmickry?
They do, according to molecular gastronomy guru Heston Blumenthal, who’s been trumpeting the pairing of white chocolate and caviar since giving it a try over 20 years ago. “Caviar transformed the flavor far more spectacularly than I could have imagined, making it richly smooth, briny and buttery,” he recounts in the 2020 book The Art and Science of Foodpairing. Searching for scientific justification, he turned to a Swiss food chemist who pronounced that the two foods went so well together because they were similarly high in certain flavor compounds.
Since that discovery, fish eggs have made many appearances in high-end desserts, at Blumenthal’s own restaurant and beyond. (Here in Berlin, for example, the two-Michelin-starred “dessert bar” Coda sells it in popsicle form). Conveniently for hucksters looking to upsell a macaron or bowl of plain ice cream, the magic flavor meld only happens with “real” caviar, not plain old roe—Blumenthal’s Guardian recipe calls for a $50 tin of Sevruga.
Fishy and dessert-like flavors don’t have to complement each other to blend well. They can also contrast. In the Philippines, for example, unripe green mangos are commonly eaten with bagoong—a tart, salty fermented shrimp paste that the Manila parlor Sebastian’s Ice Cream translated into sorbet, to apparently delicious effect. Meanwhile, the pairing of champorado (a rice pudding made with sugar, coconut milk, and lots of chocolate) with tuyo (little salted dried fish) might seem counterintuitive to people outside the country, but “for us Filipinos, it goes together like love and marriage,” to quote the late food writer Clinton Palanca.
The same could be said of fish sauce and caramel in Vietnam. Traditionally used in braised meat dishes, the sweet, sticky blend has been making inroads as a salted caramel alternative, showing up in candies and as a topping for ice cream and crispy rice. There, as with tuyo or bagoong, the salinity of the seafood offsets the sugariness of the rest of the dish, with a hit of umami as an added bonus.
In the end, the key to fully enjoying fish for dessert might be to banish the category of “dessert” from one’s mind entirely. After all, doesn’t Panda Express’ honey walnut shrimp contain more sugar than your standard apple pie? The only real reason we eat the former before the latter is because several hundred years ago, looking for ever more ways to distinguish themselves from the masses, some European noblemen made the decision that meat and fish were for dinner and pastries and cakes were not.
With that in mind, I’ll be going back to give the crab eclair another shot. After all, I’m not going to let long-dead aristocrats tell me what I can and can’t eat. But maybe this time, I’ll order it as an appetizer.