The Fish Fallback Position (or Why It’s So Hard to Get Good Fish)


Photo: Stephanie Wood

Let me hazard four guesses: one, most home cooks are a bit scared of cooking fish; two, most home cooks buy fish fillets rather than whole fish; three, most home cooks buy fillets of salmon or ocean trout rather than white fish; because four, most home cooks are massively disappointed with the results when they cook fillets of white fish.

To the above list, my own answers would be sometimes, yes, yes and YES.

I’ve just had a few days in Queensland; diligent daughter and (adoring) aunt taking four-year-old nephew to see his grandmother who lives at Sunshine Beach. After sandcastles on the beach we paid a late afternoon visit to Noosa Junction’s self-serve Seafood Market. Fish for tea.

I wanted fillets; chefs, anglers and more serious home cooks than I might feel confident with a whole fish, either cooking it on the bone or filleting it themselves, but, with a hungry four-year-old clutching my hand, my enthusiasm for anything whole was non-existent. The offerings at the Seafood Market were largely uninspiring — I watched as two young Japanese blokes, I guessed backpackers, peered and muttered their way around the shop and got the impression they were even less impressed than I was. For sure, it’s a generalisation, but, when it comes to fish, I’d trust a Japanese opinion.


The four-year-old was getting impatient: I have little practice at this strange and challenging business of parenting but know that, around five o’clock in the afternoon, things can all end in tears. I made a quick decision, hastily bagging what looked to be the best in show —fillets of “reef cod” (at the not inconsiderable price of $39.99/kg).

Home without incident, Lego and carrot sticks distracting little fingers, I took stock of the fish. They were chunky skinless fillets and I decided, rightly or wrongly, that they needed pan-frying first and finishing in the oven. A bit of butter and oil in the pan with a smashed garlic clove for a bit of oomph. Fish in, sautéed each side, into the oven, five, maybe 10 minutes. A sprinkling of herbs from Grandma’s garden, light seasoning, a squeeze of lime. Grandma’s mashed potato, mashed sweet potato and steamed zucchini on the side. Nothing fancy. The four-year-old loved Grandma’s vegetables. He didn’t eat the fish. I didn’t blame him. I didn’t want to eat mine either. (Grandma, my Mum, she of the “starving children in Africa” remonstrations, always eats everything.)

I wished I’d listened to the four-year-old, who, in the fish shop, had declared he wanted his favourite meal, salmon pasta. I don’t think it was my cooking, although I’m prepared to be contradicted on that matter. It was the fish. Not far off rubbery and zero flavour.

Nothing became clearer about “reef cod” when I Googled it.

I called the Seafood Market. Does your reef cod go by any other name, I asked the woman who answered. While I waited on the phone there was chatter in the background. Returning to the phone (perhaps she’d looked at some boxes in a back room) the woman was vague. No, she said, that’s it.

I called John Susman, legendary seafood industry consultant and partner in Cloudy Bay Fish Co, catching him fresh from a chat with sea urchin divers somewhere on the south coast of New South Wales. Ah, yes, he said, there’s a range of tropical fish loosely termed “reef cod”. Could be “rankin cod” or “flowery cod” or “footballers cod” (at least, that’s what I think he said, as images of David Beckham sprang into my head). “A lot of those mid-water, trawled tropical fish are fairly light on flavour and can vary from having a beautiful broad scalloping flake to being quite rubbery and tough,” Susman added.

Why, I asked, is it so hard for the average cook (the cook who may not fish, the cook who may not have a huge knowledge, the cook who can’t deftly fillet, the cook who wants to cook for one, the cook who may not have a Clamm’s or a Claringbold’s or a Claudio’s or a Christie’s nearby, the cook who can’t afford to shop in those places anyway) to buy decent fish? “I know, isn’t that the sixty-four-million-dollar question — it is a tough one,” Susman said. “The whole supply cycle is somewhat upside down.”

Well-travelled Australians, he added, might go to Europe and marvel over a slab of extraordinary fish at some market in the morning and happily accept that, if they leave their market visit too late, there won’t be anything left to see. “But if you go to the Sydney fish markets on a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of August you’ll see a three-tiered cascading display of everything that swims, even though there’s no one in the carpark.”

So, my interpretation of Susman’s answer: we, the consumer, can take some of the blame: we expect to see gleaming, extravagant displays of seafood, be they in market or fish shop. Am I drawing too long a bow to suggest that the groaning Australian seafood platter has been our undoing? Has our own gluttony — and, in Sydney at least, the demands of fish-market-as-day-long-tourist-attraction — led us to this point?

Susman is prepared, on behalf of his industry, to shoulder some of the blame: “As much as people will go to the fish markets and swoon over the whole fish, they still go to the boneless white fillet section; the level of knowledge is not great. And whose fault is that? It’s probably ours in the industry. We don’t have an industry agency like Meat & Livestock teaching us how to handle seafood and therein lies one of the big problems. You go into a butcher’s shop and you’re facing four animals, five if it carries chooks. Walk into a fish shop and it could be upwards of three hundred different animals, all that require different preparation and handling and storage.”

Do chefs, restaurants, get the best fish, I ask. “They possibly do, on the basis that they have a greater level of understanding,” he says. “The professional fishmonger that’s servicing the restaurants, as a generalisation, probably has a deeper level of understanding of the end game than the average retailer.”

So what’s an average person to do? Build relationships, Susman suggests. “My general recommendation to anyone who wants to really start to enjoy fish is to get a good relationship with the fishmonger; try and shop at the same place regularly; ask questions of the fishmonger even if they don’t have the immediate knowledge to answer those questions, push them a bit.” (I can’t help but remember the Noosa Seafood Market staffer’s lack of interest in my questions. I can’t help but think of the response I’d get if I asked the same questions of my nearest ordinary inner-Sydney fishmonger and its teenage staff.)

“Sorry it is so difficult,” Susman says. “I apologise from the industry; it’s bloody tough.”

And, if you can’t cosy up to your fishmonger, what does he suggest? I would recommend buying whole fish and getting the fishmonger to fillet them; you’re going to get a higher chance of, first, selecting a really fresh fish and second, getting a fillet that’s in as good a state as possible.” But if you can’t do that and pre-filleted fish is all that’s available, he advises looking for fillets that have a degree of translucency; a slightly glassy rather than a dull or flat appearance. If the fillet has a bloodline it should be as cherry-red as possible and, if you’re able to touch it, it should be resilient to the touch. And you don’t want it to smell fishy; ideally, it should smell clean and sweet and have a “bright salty note”. (My “reef cod” had a degree of translucency and a glassy appearance and, I thought, cherry red bloodlines.)

All that said, Susman, who has a broader view of Australian seafood than almost anyone else in the nation, understands why consumers would take the pink fish, the Atlantic salmon and the ocean trout, as their default position. Their fat content means they’re more forgiving, even when they’re overcooked. “The first salmon was sold in Australia in 1987 and that year there was 15 tonnes of salmon produced. This year there’ll be 45,000 tonnes. I think that’s fairly indicative of the explosion in terms of popularity. That’s why you see the deli case in … supermarkets these days is predominated by salmon because it is so forgiving and it is so easy for everyone to use.”

And yes, I’m guilty. Time and again, I return to farmed Atlantic salmon and ocean trout, even as I’m aware that sustainability experts suggest we think twice about buying them.* With John Susman’s advice in my head I’m going to keep trying to identify and buy top-quality fish and white fillets but still, I can’t imagine ever completely abandoning the pink fish. Not when I can cook great dishes like this.


* The Australian Marine Conservation Society’s notes on farmed Atlantic salmon read: “Majority produced in sea cages; carnivorous species with significant reliance on wild fisheries to supply feed; potential for pollution and fish escapes into the wild from sea cage operations; some operators have made significant efforts to reduce dependence on wild caught feed and chemical treatments, although tighter government regulation is still required to address sustainability concerns...” There is similar advice on farmed ocean trout. 


Soba Noodles with Teriyaki Ocean Trout
(Serves 4)

(Adapted from a recipe in Old Food, by Jill Dupleix, Allen & Unwin, 1998; and with the dashi broth recipe from Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, by Shizuo Tsuji, 25th Anniversary Edition, 2006, Kodansha International)

400g soba noodles
2cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated finely
4 small fillets of ocean trout, skinned
generous handful of baby spinach, washed
4 green onions, sliced diagonally
Teriyaki sauce:
2tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sake
1 tbsp mirin
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp vegetable oil
Dashi broth:
1 litre cold water
30g giant kelp (konbu)
30g dried bonito flakes (hana-katsuo)

To make teriyaki sauce: Combine soy, sake, mirin, sugar and oil in a microwave-safe dish and heat for short bursts until sugar has dissolved (30-40 seconds). Set aside.

To make dashi: Fill a pot with 1 litre of water and put in the kelp. Heat, uncovered, so as to reach boiling point in about 10 minutes. (Kelp emits a strong odour if it is boiled, so remove konbu just before water reaches the boil.) Insert your thumbnail into the fleshiest part of the kelp. If it is soft, sufficient flavour has been obtained. If tough, return it to the pot for one or two minutes. Keep from boiling by adding about ¼ cup cold water.

After removing the konbu, bring the stock to the boil. Add ¼ cup cold water to bring the temperature down quickly and add the bonito flakes. Don’t stir. Bring to a full boil and remove from the heat at once. (If bonito flakes boil more than a few seconds, the stock becomes too strong, a bit bitter and is not suitable for use in clear soups.) Allow the flakes to start to settle to the bottom of the pot (30 seconds to one minute). Remove foam, then filter broth through a sieve, discarding flakes. Stir ginger through the clear broth.

To prepare fish: Brush ocean trout with teriyaki sauce and grill quickly on an oiled grill, leaving the inside slightly pink. Meanwhile cook noodles in boiling salted water until al dente (follow the instructions on the packet). Drain and rinse in cold water. 
To assemble: Bring broth to just below the boil. Add noodles for 30 seconds to heat through, then divide noodles between four warmed bowls. Dip spinach leaves briefly into the broth to wilt them, and divide among bowls.

Ladle hot broth into each bowl and top noodles with grilled ocean trout. Top with green onions.