Thanks for all the fish…

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Virgil Evetts

Curse the universe and to hell with synchronicity. I had written a lengthy, but on reflection rather dry, piece about the ethics of eating seafood, but then opened the Herald on Wednesday morning to find what was effectively the same article. Only better. So I was thrown into a flurry of re-tooling.  The things I do for your reading ‘pleasure’…

It’s an oft-quoted absurdity and truism that New Zealand, although largely a maritime nation, is not a nation of fish-eaters. Oh sure we can talk the talk, about fishing, about our ‘national love of seafood’, fond memories of  kai moana by the sea, blah blah blah; but when it comes to action most of us don’t stray much further than sporadic F&Cs.  To a certain extent this has applied to me too. My local fish shop keeps very peculiar hours (when I asked what time they closed recently I was told “sometimes six o’clock, sometimes seven, maybe four. It depends…”) and their prices are extortionate even by fresh fish standards. My only other local option is the supermarket which is open pretty much all the time and offers a decent enough variety of fish at passable prices; but the shoddy quality and dubious freshness has until recently been the stuff of local legend. So for quite a few years, buying fish has just been too much bloody bother most of the time and I’ve invariably ended up opting for a nice bit of lamb instead.

But lately, and rather abruptly, the quality and freshness of the fish being flogged at my local supermarket has improved dramatically, putting fish back on the house menu again. 

As a cook I am at my least adventurous when it comes to cooking fish, but not for lack of imagination. Quite simply, it’s nigh on impossible to improve upon fresh fish, so why try? For this reason I believe deep fried battered fresh (or ‘wet’ fish) can be pretty close to perfection. Sadly, really good examples are rare, with freezer-burnt mass-processed hoki and tarakihi predominating. 

For my own return to cooking and eating fresh fish I’ve been enjoying a dish I was practically raised on – fish floured and fried in butter, a quick deglaze of the pan with white wine, served with Pommes dauphinoise and  a fuss-free little salad on the side. It’s old fashioned bistro food ( the sort my mother cooked in bistros back in the olden days), but remains as tasty, smart and pretty as it was way back when..

Thai curries, made from perfectly decent premade pastes, have been  on weekly turn-around in my house for years. Usually I make these with prawns or chicken breast, depending on what’s lurking in the freezer, but just lately I’ve turned my attention to fresh fish. The trick is to drop the fish into the spluttering sauce just moments before serving, leaving the fish only barely cooked and still brimming with sweetness and flavour.  A whole steamed snapper served with sesame and ginger sauce or similar is pretty fine too, but for reasons of grave ethical concern, I no longer partake of snapper. It’s been grossly overfished and needs a rest, or possibly an all-out ban on harvesting.

I can’t categorically say why, as nation we are so reluctant to eat fish (nor why we like to convince ourselves otherwise), but I rather suspect it’s mostly to do with price. Fresh fish is very expensive, but then so it should be should be. It’s almost entirely wild-caught, from an environment that couldn’t be less hospitable to humans. The costs of catching fish and getting it to market are huge – fishermen have to purchase quotas and then fuel, insure, crew, register and maintain ships.  A patch of bad weather can ground entire fleets and cost the industry tens of thousands of dollars. On the flipside one might argue that as rapers and pillagers of the sea, the fishing industry should be scuttled rather than thanked.  You might very well say that…

But as I said at the beginning, this blog is not really about the ethics of eating seafood…not anymore. For more on that see the excellent piece in Wednesday’s Herald.  All I’m going to say on the matter is if, like me, you have neglected fresh fish for a while, then to get thee to the fishmongers  to rediscovers one of life’s true pleasures. But shop responsibly, be informed, and follow this link…

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5 thoughts on “Thanks for all the fish…

  1. Hey Shaun
    The news is not good about carp I’m afraid. The Chinese (in some regions) quite like it, but they also quite like steamed silkworm pupae, which even to my rather liberal palate taste like death. I think it helps if you grow up eating this sort of thing.
    Carp are a strictly freshwater fish and they ingest a lot of pond-mud, neither of these factors make for good eating. You should at least be able to get freshwater catfish at your market which taste much better than carp.

  2. Nice piece mate,any suggestions on cooking carp/koi other than not to! Unfortunately that is about all I can find here in my local market (Jiangsu, China)

  3. I can never bring myself to curry fresh fish it seems like sacrilege. If it is fresh it just gets a quick steam, fry or bake.

    • My travels in Asia change dmy mind about fish curries Stephanie. It is however very important to drop the fish into the curry only a few minutes before serving. We had this again last night with fresh gurnard, (my favourite white fish), torn silverbeet and fresh tomatoes. Glorious!

  4. I checked out the link, which I have referred to previously. I mostly buy and eat tarakihi, although I do try other things from time to time. It is really working out the best use – red cod for example tastes good but is very flaky so I think that might be good in a fish pie or even fish cake recipe, pan fried it was a bit of a mess.

    I do love and enjoy salmon and mussels so I hope that farmed fish come out okay!

    I mostly pan fry fish, occasionally cook it the greek way with tomatoes, sometimes add to a thai curry, or make a decadent fish pie.