Last Saturday I was fortunate enough to catch my biggest yellowfin tuna yet. The fight was as tough as I had expected, and the “tax man” was kind enough not to help himself to my fish. But a yellowfin is about much more than the thrill of catching it; it is a gift that keeps on giving. From a culinary perspective, it is the true “chicken of the sea” in that it can be eaten in a myriad ways. After a few quick Kodak Moments I cleaned and filleted the magnificent beast, and then it was time for the real highlight of the day: sashimi from a fish that had been swimming in the sea five hours before!
I have eaten seared tuna and tuna sashimi many times, but nothing I’ve experienced had prepared me for the pleasure to come. The first clue appeared as I sliced our sashimi slivers – the vermillion flesh parted like warm butter! Butter was also the metaphor that came to mind as we tasted it for the first time, and – like the fat on jamón ibèrico – the “butter” dissipated without clinging to our palates. Those slivers of sashimi will remain vivid memories for the rest of my days. They also reinforced a long-held belief of mine: food doesn’t have to be cooked; some just happen to taste better when cooked. If it’s at its best raw, don’t try and force a marshmallow into a piggy bank – eat it raw!
Of course my philosophy is hardly new, particularly as far as fish and seafood are concerned. Most seafood-heavy cultures have figured out that you don't need to heat fish and shellfish before eating them. The flourishing sushi industry is but one manifestation of the joys of raw fish; literally dozens of examples of uncooked fish dishes can be found all over the world. Since some of them have similar features (and the nomenclature can be confusing) I’ve decided to devote this blog post to unpacking the wonders of some of the best-known raw fish dishes.
These dishes are gaining in popularity - even away from the coastal regions where raw fish is an old tradition - partly because the rapidly growing global middle class is ever-hungry for new and more exotic foods, but also because raw is an excellent way to appreciate high-quality seafood. These dishes came about as a way to utilise and celebrate the local catch, and have taken on different characteristics based on the different ingredients and cultures prevalent where they evolved Eating a raw fish dish is a way to really see and taste what it’s like to live along a certain coast. Here, in alphabetic order, is my list of iconic raw fish dishes. I hope this post will inspire you to try at least some of them!
Carpaccio is a dish made with raw meat or fish (normally tuna or billfish); thinly sliced or pounded thin and served mainly as an appetiser. The dish, based on a North Italian speciality, carne cruda all'albese, was invented in 1950 by Giuseppe Cipriani, owner of Harry’s Bar in Venice. He originally prepared the dish for the countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo when he learned that the doctors had recommended that she eat raw meat. The dish was named carpaccio after Vittor Carpaccio, the Venetian painter known for the characteristic red and white tones of his work.
Traditional carpaccio is made with very thin slices of beef arranged on a plate with lemon juice, olive oil and shavings of white truffle or Parmesan cheese, and garnished with rocket. Today the term “carpaccio” is applied to any preparation made with thinly sliced raw meat or fish presented in this way. As far as fish is concerned, the species commonly used are yellowfin tuna, swordfish, marlin or sailfish. All of these have firm, reddish flesh with a meaty flavour, and can be used raw or lightly smoked.
Sadly, these magnificent game fish pose a health hazard to those who eat them. Because they are apex predators, they end up aggregating toxins like mercury which are ingested by organisms below them in the food chain. They also live longer than smaller fish, which allows enough time for the toxic build-up to reach levels which endanger the health of humans. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever touch carpaccio; only that we shouldn’t eat it regularly or in large amounts, and that we should preferably stick to species like yellowfin and longfin tuna which are smaller and have shorter life cycles.
Caviar is probably the most exclusive raw fish delicacy; more expensive by weight – shadowing even Toto (Bluefin tuna) sashimi. Traditionally, the term “caviar” refers only to roe from wild sturgeon from the Black and Caspian Seas: Beluga, Ossetra and Sevruga caviar. Commercial caviar production historically involved stunning the fish and extracting the ovaries. Another method is extracting the caviar surgically (C section) which allows the females to continue producing roe but this method is very painful and stressful for the fish and is illegal in some countries. Depending on the country, caviar may also be used to describe the roe of other fish such as salmon, steelhead trout, lumpfish, whitefish, carp and other species of sturgeon.
Caviar is usually eaten as a garnish or a spread. Preparation follows a sequence that has not significantly changed over the last century. First, the ovaries are removed from a sedated female sturgeon and passed through a sieve to remove the membrane. Freed roes are rinsed to wash away impurities. Roes are now ready to become caviar by adding a precise amount of salt for taste and preservation. The fresh product is tasted and graded according to quality. Finally, the eggs are packed into lacquer-lined tins that will be further processed or sold directly to customers.
The rarest and most expensive “true” caviar is harvested from the rare beluga sturgeon of the Caspian Sea, which is bordered by Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. Beluga caviar is prized for its soft, extremely large (pea-size) eggs. It can range in colour from pale silver-grey to black.
Wild caviar production was suspended in Russia between 2008 and 2011 to allow wild stocks to replenish. Azerbaijan and Iran also clamped down on the fishing of sturgeon off their coasts. The ban on sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea led to the development of aquaculture as an economically viable means of commercial caviar production. Italy, where sturgeon used to be abundant in the Po basin, is currently the world's largest producer and exporter of farmed caviar, with about 20% of the caviar consumed worldwide produced there. Spain, Canada and the USA also have significant farmed caviar industries. Amazingly, the fastest-growing caviar aquaculture players are in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Israel together producing more caviar than Italy.
Apart from aquaculture of sturgeon caviar, many alternatives are on offer. The earliest example is “Kosher caviar”. Kashrut laws forbid the eating of any part of the sturgeon, which is deemed “unclean” because it has no scales. Innovative Jews responded by breeding a strain of carp (which is Kosher) which produces large, palatable eggs. In Scandinavia, a cheap “ersatz” version of caviar called smörgåskaviar ("sandwich caviar") is made from mashed and smoked cod roe and sold in tubes as a sandwich spread. Another caviar substitute is black or red lump fish (Cyclopterus lumpus) “caviar” sold all over the world in small glass jars. In North America, salmon eggs are widely preserved and eaten in the same way as real caviar. There are also kosher and vegan caviar substitutes made of seaweeds such as Laminaria hyoerborea. They closely resemble beluga caviar in appearance and are either used as a food prop for television and film, or enjoyed by vegetarians and people morally opposed to the killing of sturgeons.
If caviar is the most exclusive raw fish delicacy, ceviche is surely the most widely eaten by the masses. It is a staple in the coastal regions of Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the West Coast of the USA. In its original form, the dish is typically made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices, such as lemon or lime, and spiced with chilli peppers. Additional seasonings, such as chopped onions, salt, and cilantro (coriander leaf) have become accepted ingredients in recent years. Because it is eaten in so many different places, a large variety of fishes are used to make it. My favourites are all firm, white fish, as a soft or oily fish will become mushy when marinated for a while. In the Americas, ideal species include flounders, drumfish, grouper and sea bass. In South Africa, Kingklip is indeed king but yellowtail, rock cod and kob also make great ceviche.
There is archaeological evidence suggesting the consumption of a food similar to ceviche by the Moche civilisation in Northern Peru nearly 2,000 years ago. Recent research indicates that during the time of the Inca Empire, fish were marinated with the use of chicha (a fermented Andean drink). It may well be that the natives simply switched to using the juice of citrus fruits introduced by the Spanish colonists, but the key elements of the dish essentially remained the same.
What is clear is that ceviche was regularly eaten in Lima, Peru as early as the Sixteenth Century. The fact that Lima was the capital of the Spanish Vice-Royalty of Peru for nearly four centuries allowed for the introduction of popular dishes such as ceviche to other Spanish colonies in the region, and eventually to (Portuguese) Brazil. In time these dishes became part of local cuisine, and variants evolved as regional flavours and styles were incorporated.
Traditional ceviche was marinated in lime or lemon juice for about three hours. Modern-day ceviche, popularized in the 1970s, usually has a very short marinating period. With suitable fish, it can marinate in the time it takes to mix the ingredients, serve, and carry the ceviche to the table. Most Latin American countries have given ceviche its own touch of individuality by adding their own particular garnishes. The Chilean version is minimalist, with only salt, onion and cilantro added. Peruvian ceviche is more elaborate, with sliced onions, chilli and bell peppers, yuyo seaweed, salt and pepper, and is served at room temperature, with chunks of corn-on-the-cob, and slices of cooked sweet potato. Ecuadorian ceviche is made with shrimp and flavoured with tomato sauce for a tangy taste.
In Mexico and some parts of Central America, ceviche is served either in cocktail cups or as a tostada topping and taco filling. Apart from the traditional white fish, prawns, octopus, squid, tuna and mackerel are also popular bases for Mexican ceviche. The marinade ingredients include salt, lime, onion, chillies, bell peppers, cilantro and avocado. Sliced olives and chopped tomatoes are often added prior to serving.
The Japanese are by no means the only culture long addicted to raw fish. The Italians share their passion for expertly prepared fresh fish. Pesce Crudo (literally “Raw Fish”) is ubiquitous in fishing towns - both large and small - along the coasts of Italy, Sicily and Sardinia. Italians living near the coastline have been eating raw fish for a long time. Its origins hark back to when fisherman with their returning catch helped themselves to some raw fish dressed with a little olive oil, lemon and salt for lunch. Each village may have its own signature fish or flavouring preferences; however the most traditional method of making crudo in Italy is still dressing the thinly sliced fish with a little olive oil, salt and lemon. My fondest memory of crudo is eating fresh white anchovy crudo in Palermo a week before 9/11.
Crudo and sashimi both rely on ultra-fresh seafood, but that’s where the similarities end. If you have ever been in a Japanese restaurant, you will have seen the slices of sashimi. It is simply raw fish. There are no added oils, seasonings or anything else. Crudo is not just a slice of raw fish though. It is dressed specifically, with the aim of pleasing an Italian palate. Crudo is more ingredient-driven as it uses different additives in order to not only enhance the flavour of the fish, but to give it a different consistence and appearance. This is why it is possible to order the same kind of raw fish from different Italian restaurants and enjoy something truly different from one restaurant to another, based on the seasoning and oils each uses. Fundis claim, for example, that the origin and vintage of the olive oil used can dramatically alter the dish’s flavour profile.
Nowadays crudo is all the rage in good Italian restaurants. Obviously finding ultra-fresh fish is crucial. But so is combining the right pairings with the fish – a good balance of extra virgin olive oil and a little acid taste combined with some interesting texture to complement the silkiness of the raw fish. The slight acidity of extra virgin olive oil isn’t enough to cure the fish like the salt-and-sugar mixture used to make gravlax, but it does create a subtle, aromatic coating meant to complement the fish’s natural flavour, rather than actually curing the fish.
Italian chefs believe that using fish that are in season is as important as the preparation of the dish. Crudo is a balancing act between excellence and excess: it requires just enough texture, oil, heat, salt, citrus - whatever the flavourings chosen - to enhance the dish without masking or drowning the fish’s own pristine flavour and taste. As with sashimi, physics and chemistry play an important role when handling the fish. The proteins in fish are very fragile and can easily get damaged if too much pressure is applied while slicing, so it is important the fish be super-cold and handled with a light touch when it is being cut.
While any fish (or other seafood, like scallops or shrimps) can be used to make crudo, the yellowfin tuna (also known as albacore) is a firm favourite, along with swordfish, sea bass, flounder and monkfish. Anchovies, sardines and mackerel are more abundant and therefore cheaper, and can be turned into delicacies with proper skill and care.
Fugu is the Japanese word for “pufferfish” – that unsightly, bloated little pest of a fish we all caught in abundance at some or other time while going after more desirable quarries. Not only are the ugly as sin; “blaasoppies” contain a lethal poison, tetrodotoxin, in their skins and intestines. To make the dish, therefore, the fish must be carefully cleaned and sliced to remove toxic parts and to avoid contaminating the flesh. Tetrodotoxin is 1200 times stronger than cyanide, and there is no known antidote. The victim remains conscious but cannot speak or move. Breathing stops and asphyxiation ensues. The only effective treatment is to support the victim’s respiratory and circulatory systems until the poison is metabolised and excreted.
One aspect of the fugu sub-culture not well known to Westerners is that diners knowingly consume tetrodotoxin because of the narcotic effect it has when consumed in sub-lethal quantities. The role of the Fugu chef is not to eliminate the toxin altogether, but to reduce it, to the extent that the diner experiences effects of mild intoxication, including waves of euphoria and tingling sensations.
Notwithstanding the danger associated with eating it, fugu has long been one of the most celebrated and notorious dishes in Japanese cuisine. The inhabitants of Japan have eaten it for centuries. Fugu bones have been found in shell middens that date back more than 2,300 years. Over the years, the consumption of fugu was periodically banned several times, but in regions where the government's influence was weak and/or fugu was easy to obtain, the practice continued unabated. Various cooking methods were developed to safely eat the lethal little fish. The last “prohibition era” occurred during the Meiji Restoration of the late 1800s. Fugu is the only food the Emperor of Japan is forbidden to eat, for obvious reasons.
The restaurant preparation of fugu is strictly controlled by law in Japan and several other countries, and only chefs who have qualified after three or more years of rigorous training are allowed to prepare the fish. Newspapers often report accidental deaths due to inept domestic preparation. In an attempt to prevent this from happening, the Japanese government is incentivising grocery stores to offer professionally prepared fugu, and has made it illegal for whole fish to be sold to the general public.
Restaurants normally serve fish from a large tank kept on the premises; usually prominently displayed. Only when an order is placed is the fish killed and prepared by a licenced chef. Since 2012, restaurants in Japan have been permitted to sell fugu which has been prepared and packaged by a licensed practitioner elsewhere. Such restaurants are not held in high esteem, however. Eating fugu is an expensive indulgence – a starter portion typically costs around US$40, and a traditional eight-course meal can cost more than US$200. The expense encourages chefs to slice the fish very carefully to obtain the largest possible amount of meat. The special knife, called a fugu hiki, is usually stored separately from other knives.
A rakugo (ancient humorous Japanese anecdote) tells of three men who prepared a fugu stew but were unsure whether it was safe to eat. To test the stew, they gave some to a beggar. When it did not seem to do him any harm, they ate the stew. Later, they met the beggar again and were delighted to see that he was still in good health. After that encounter, the beggar, who had hidden the stew instead of eating it, knew that it was safe and he could eat it. The three men had been fooled by the wise beggar.
Gravlax is an iconic Scandinavian dish consisting of raw salmon, cured in salt, sugar and dill. Gravlax is usually served as an appetiser, sliced thinly and accompanied by a dill and mustard sauce, either on bread, or with boiled potatoes. The “grav” part of its name comes from the Scandinavian word for "to dig" (it shares the same root with the English "grave") and “lax”, which means "salmon." The name therefore literally means "buried salmon," which is how gravlax was originally made. During medieval times, fishermen salted their salmon and lightly fermented it by burying it in the sand above the high-water mark.
Today fermentation is no longer used in the production process. Instead the salmon is "buried" in a dry marinade of salt, sugar, and dill, and cured for a few days. As the salmon cures, the moisture turns the dry cure into a highly concentrated brine via the action of osmosis. This same method of curing can be employed for any fatty fish, but salmon (“lax”) is the most commonly used. Gravlax need not be an expensive delicacy if you make it yourself. For the price of a fresh fillet of salmon and a very short two- or three-day wait, you can serve a beautiful spread of hand-sliced gravlax as an hors d'oeuvre or light appetizer. Plus, because you're making it yourself, you can customise its flavour with the aromatics of your choice.
The whole process is ridiculously easy, and yet gravlax continues to be one of those dishes that impress people. This is no joke: the hardest thing about making your own gravlax is slicing it. Because gravlax is an inherently simple preparation, the biggest question is simply what ratio of salt to sugar to use in the dry brine. On a technical level, what both the salt and sugar do is draw moisture out of the fish. This decreases the moisture level of the fish, which in turn makes it less hospitable to microbial life. The salt, meanwhile, also helps ward off bacteria that would otherwise hasten spoilage. This extends the edible life of the salmon, but only for a short amount of time—gravlax is not cured in the long-term sense of the word. As gravlax is lightly cured, the fish's shelf life is extended only a little, not a lot. Exactly how long it lasts will depend on just how pristine the fish was when it was bought, as well as how it has been stored and handled. On average, it starts smelling a little fishy after about five days or so, not including the curing time itself.
Ultimately, the ratio of salt to sugar is a question of personal taste. A sugar-heavy cure produces a sweet-tasting gravlax with very little saltiness, while a salt-heavy cure produces gravlax with a pleasant level of saltiness that is rounded out by a very subtle sweetness. The saltier cure also helps firm the salmon more, sweeter ones retain more of the salmon's sashimi-like raw-fish texture. Beyond the salt and sugar, you have other options for flavouring your gravlax. Dill is essential for the classic gravlax flavour, and white pepper is very common. For those who don't like the pungent taste of white pepper, black pepper works well too. If you want to add even more dimension, spices like caraway seed, tarragon and fennel seed are all good options.
Some people add citrus to the mix. I'd strongly advise against using whole citrus or the juice, which some recipes call for, since the acid will cook the fish like a ceviche, toughening the fish's exterior in an unpleasant way. If you want citrus flavour, add zest instead. It's also common to see alcohol, like aquavit and brandy, in gravlax recipes. Some liquors like brandy might have a bigger flavor impact, but I'd say if you want to taste caraway—the spice used to flavour aquavit—you're better off just using the spice itself.
Freely translated, maatjes haring means “soused herring”. Soused herring (Clupea harengus) is soaked in a mild preserving liquid. It can be raw herring in a mild vinegar pickle or Dutch brined herring. Apart from vinegar, the marinade might contain cider, wine, sugar, herbs (usually bay leaves), spices (usually mace) and/or chopped onion. It is traditionally served cold.
To those of us without ties to the Netherlands, juvenile herrings are indelibly associated with “rollmops” – pickled filets of herring rolled up and skewered. This is however but one of many ways of serving herring – actually a variant on “Bismarck Herring” - and maatjes are seldom preserved; most are eaten fresh! The herrings caught by the Dutch trawler fleet are categorised as maatjes (“maagdelijk” or virginal), volle haring (ready to spawn) or ijle haring (skinny, spawned-out fish). For the purposes of this post, I will confine myself to the former.
Herrings are of huge importance to countries along the North Sea, and are the raw material for rollmops, kippers, bloaters and Arbroath Smokies. The first catches are made in June, and Dutch gourmets insist that these precious little fish are best simply gutted and eaten raw. For the less adventurous, the options are to preserve them through hot or cold smoking or – preferably – curing them in brine. Herring are not just tasty and versatile, but also packed with vitamins, minerals and Omega 3 unsaturated fatty acids. They are caught using sustainable techniques, and stocks are relatively stable.
To make Dutch-style soused herring young, immature herrings are immersed in brine for a couple of days. The liver and pancreas are left in the fish during the salt-curing process because they release enzymes essential for the flavour to develop fully. The pancreatic enzymes make this version of salt herring especially mild and soft. The fish are caught between the end of May and the beginning of July in the North Sea off Denmark or Norway - before the breeding season starts. This is because herrings at this time are unusually rich in oils (over 15%) and their roe and milt have not started to develop. The brine used for Dutch soused herring has a much lower salt content and is much milder in taste than the German equivalent, loggermatjes. Whereas salt herrings have a salt content of 20% and must be soaked in water before consumption, soused herrings do not need soaking.
In the Netherlands soused herring is most often served as a snack - most often on its own, or with cut onions. Whole herring is often eaten by lifting the herring by its tail and eat it upwards holding it over one’s mouth. Soused herring dishes in Northern Germany are traditionally served with potatoes boiled in their skins, or with sliced raw onions in a bread roll. In some northern German länder like Holstein, it is served on dark bread with a berry and cream sauce. In Sweden matjessill is traditionally served with boiled potatoes, sour cream, chopped chives and crisp bread. This dish is traditionally served on Midsummer’s's Eve, and is usually more strongly spiced than the Dutch, Danish or German varieties.
The perfect example of trans-Pacific fusion food is Poke. This Hawaiian hybrid ceviche/sashimi dish (pronounced poh-kay) is nowadays served in the form of a bowl of cubed raw fish, sometimes served over rice, in a sauce. It is usually dressed with soy sauce, seaweed, and sesame oil, but it’s not uncommon to see Japanese mayonnaise, wasabi, hot sauce, onions, avocado, or basically anything else in poke.
It’s a fairly young dish. Raw fish has admittedly been eaten by Hawaiians for centuries, but the dish recognisable as poke dates back perhaps to the late 19th century. It has no singular cultural origin, so poke is a particularly fluid dish; on local foundations an edifice has been built inspired by both Asia and the America. On the US mainland, the word “poke” has become a catch-all term used to refer to any dish of cubed raw fish in a bowl.
Poke is the Hawaiian verb for "to slice or cut". Traditional forms are made with aku (an oily tuna) and he'e (octopus). Increasingly popular ahi poke is usually made with yellowfin tuna. Adaptations may feature raw salmon or various shellfish as a main ingredient, served raw with the common "poke" seasonings. Poke began with fishermen seasoning the offcuts from their catch to serve as a snack.
The present form of poke became popular during the 1970s. It used skinned, filleted raw fish served with sea salt, seaweed and roasted, ground kukui nut. This form of poke is still common in the Hawaiian islands. Traditional poke seasonings have been heavily influenced by Japanese and other Asian cuisines. These include soya sauce, scallions (green onions) and sesame oil. Others include furikake (a mixture of dried fish, sesame seeds, and dried seaweed), chopped dried or fresh chillies, limu (seaweed), sea salt, fish eggs, wasabi, and Maui onions.
Sashimi is an ancient Japanese preparation, and one of the seemingly simplest. The dish consists of carefully sliced raw fish that is usually not marinated, and served with no sauce and minimal garnishes. Unlike other raw fish dishes, sashimi is not preserved with acid or smoke, but given a slight extension in shelf-life due to the method with which the fish is killed, a spike through the brain known as ike jime. Common fish for sashimi include salmon, tuna, squid, mackerel, and sea urchin. The Korean dish hoe, when it includes seafood, is largely similar and differs only in that it is usually served with a soya sauce.
The word sashimi means "pierced body". This word may refer to the culinary practice of sticking the fish's tail and fin to the slices in identifying the fish being eaten. Another possibility for the name could come from the traditional method of harvesting. "Sashimi-grade" fish is caught by individual hand line. As soon as the fish is landed, its brain is pierced with a sharp spike, and it is placed in slurried ice. The instantaneous death means that the fish's flesh contains a minimal amount of lactic acid. This means that the fish will keep fresh on ice for about ten days, without turning white or otherwise degrading.
Many non-Japanese use the terms sashimi and sushi interchangeably, but the two dishes are distinct and separate. Sushi refers to any dish made with vinegared rice. While raw fish is one traditional sushi ingredient, many sushi dishes contain seafood that has been cooked, and others have no seafood at all. Sashimi, on the other hand, is always raw. Japanese chefs consider sashimi the finest dish in Japanese formal dining and recommend that it be eaten before other strong flavours affect the palate.
The sliced seafood that represents the main ingredient is typically draped over a garnish. The typical garnish is daikon (Asian white radish), shredded into long thin strands, or single leaves of the perilla herb. Sashimi is popularly served with a dipping sauce and condiments such as wasabi paste and grated fresh ginger. Wasabi paste is sometimes mixed directly into soy sauce as a dipping sauce, which is generally not done when eating sushi. A reputed motivation for serving wasabi with sashimi, besides its flavour, is killing harmful bacteria and parasites that could be present in raw seafood.
In order to highlight the fish's appearance, the chef cuts it into different thicknesses. The hira-zukuri cut, which translates into "rectangular slice", is the standard cut for most sashimi. Typically this style of cut is the size of a domino and 10 mm thick. Tuna, salmon, and kingfish are most commonly cut in this style. The uzu-zukuri cut, which translates to "thin slice", is an extremely thin, diagonally cut slice that is mostly used to cut firm fish, such as bream, sea bass and flounder. The kaku-zukuri cut, which translates to "square slice", is the style in which sashimi is cut into small, thick cubes that are 20 mm on each side. The ito-zukuri cut, which translates into "thread slice," is the style in which the fish is cut into thin sheets, less than 2 mm thick. The fish typically cut with the ito-zukuri style include garfish and squid.
The immense popularity of bluefin tuna for sashimi has contributed to the overfishing that has brought this magnificent fish to the verge of extinction. Farming bluefin does not help the situation, because the captive fish are not raised from spawn, but rather from small wild fish that are netted and transported to the farms, mostly in the Mediterranean. Producing a kilogram of tuna also requires at least 10 kg of bait fish like anchovy, sardine or mackerel. Fortunately, Japanese scientists are reportedly close to finding a way to save wild bluefin tuna from extinction by successfully breeding and raising the fish in captivity.
Simply put, sushi is a traditional Japanese dish consisting of cooked, vinegared rice combined with various ingredients, mainly fish, other seafood, vegetables (including sea weed) and meat. Styles of sushi and its presentation vary widely, but the central ingredient in all cases is the rice. Sushi is often served with pickled ginger, wasabi and soya sauce. Daikon radish is popular as a garnish. It is often confused with sashimi, which consists of thinly sliced raw meat or fish and where a serving of rice is optional.
Sushi evolved from a dish known as nare-zushi - salted fish, stored in fermented rice for possibly months at a time. The lacto-fermentation of the rice prevented the fish from spoiling, and the rice would be discarded before the fish was eaten. The term “sushi” comes from an antiquated grammatical form, no longer used in other contexts, and literally means "sour-tasting". Vinegar was introduced to the preparation of nare-zushi in the late Middle Ages in order to enhance both taste and longevity. The primitive sushi would be furthered developed in Osaka, where over several centuries it evolved into oshi-zushi. In this preparation, the seafood and rice were pressed into shape with wooden (typically bamboo) moulds.
Contemporary sushi was created by chef Hanaya Yohei (1799–1858) in the mid-1800s. Hanaya's version was a precursor to fast food; by avoiding all fermentation, the dish could be prepared very quickly, and each roll was shaped for conveniently eating with one's hands. Portion sizes shrank to roughly a third of the previous norm to further accommodate this principle. The dish was originally termed edomae-zushi as it used freshly caught fish from the Edo Bay (Bay of Tokyo). The term edomae-nigirizushi is still used today as a by-word for quality sushi, regardless of its ingredients' origins.
Modern-day sushi can take on a wide variety of forms. Chirashizushi or "scattered sushi" is served by scooping rice into a bowl, and topping it with a variety of raw fish and vegetable garnishes. Edomae chirashizushi (Edo-style scattered sushi) is served with uncooked ingredients in an artful arrangement. Gomokuzushi (Kansai-style sushi) consists of cooked or uncooked ingredients mixed with the rice. Sake-zushi (Kyushu-style sushi) uses rice wine over vinegar in preparing the rice, and is topped with shrimp, sea bream, octopus, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots and shredded omelette.
Inarizushi is a pouch of fried tofu, typically filled with sushi rice alone. Regional variations include pouches made of a thin omelette instead of tofu. Cone sushi is a variant of inarizushi which originated in Hawaii and it includes green beans, carrots and cucumber along with the rice, wrapped in a triangular piece of aburage (similar to tofu). It is often sold in Japanese delis. Makizushi ("rolled sushi"), norimaki ("Nori roll") and makimono ("variety of rolls") are cylindrical pieces, formed with the help of a bamboo mat known as a makisu. Rolled sushi is generally wrapped in nori (seaweed) and cut into six or eight pieces, which constitutes a single roll order.
Temarizushi or "ball sushi" is made by pressing rice and fish into a ball-shaped form by hand using a plastic wrap. Oshizushi ("pressed sushi") is a pressed sushi from the Kansai prefecture; it is a favourite and specialty of Osaka. A block-shaped piece is formed using a wooden mould, called an oshibako. The chef lines the bottom of the oshibako with the toppings, covers them with sushi rice, and then presses the lid of the mould down to create a compact, rectilinear block. The block is removed from the mould and cut into bite-sized pieces.
The increasing popularity of sushi around the world has resulted in variations typically found in the West, but rarely in Japan. (A notable exception to this is the use of salmon, which was introduced by Bjorn Eirik Olsen, a Norwegian businessman tasked with helping the Norwegian salmon industry sell more fish in the early 1980s). Such creations to suit the Western palate were initially fuelled by the invention of the California Roll (a nori roll with crab, cucumber, and avocado). The Norway Roll is a variant of uramakizushi filled with omelette, imitation crab and cucumber, rolled with nori and topped with slices of Norwegian salmon, garnished with lemon and mayonnaise. Other Western inventions include the rainbow roll (an inside-out topped with thinly sliced tuna or amberjack, salmon and avocado) and the caterpillar roll (an inside-out topped with thinly sliced avocado). Also commonly found is the "rock and roll" (an inside-out roll with barbecued freshwater eel and avocado with toasted sesame seeds on the outside).
For culinary, sanitary, and aesthetic reasons, the minimum quality and freshness of fish to be eaten raw must be superior to that of fish which is to be cooked. Sushi chefs are trained to recognize important attributes, including smell, colour, firmness, and freedom from parasites that may go undetected in commercial inspection. Commonly used fish are tuna, amberjack, yellowtail, snapper, mackerel and salmon. The most valued sushi ingredient is toro, the fatty belly cut of the fish. Other seafoods such as squid, octopus, prawns, clams, conger eel, fish roe, crab and sea urchins and various kinds of shellfish like abalone, periwinkle and scallops, are also popular sushi ingredients. Oysters, however, are less common, as the taste is not thought to go well with the rice. Kani kama, or imitation crab stick, is commonly substituted for real crab, most notably in California rolls.
Sushi is usually eaten with condiments. Soya sauce is used to dip sushi morsels in, and is usually flavoured with wasabi, a hot paste made from the grated root of the Wasabia japonica plant Japanese-style mayonnaise is also a common condiment in Japan on salmon, eel other fatty sushi cuts. True wasabi has anti-bacterial properties, and may reduce the risk of food poisoning. Gari (sweet, pickled ginger) is eaten in between sushi courses to both cleanse the palate and aid in digestion. In Japan, green tea is invariably served with sushi. Better sushi restaurants often use a distinctive premium tea known as mecha. Sushi may be garnished with gobo (a carrot-like root), grated daikon radish, thinly sliced vegetables, carrots/radishes/cucumbers that have been shaped to look like flowers, real flowers, or seaweed.
Tekkadon resembles sushi in that it is a Japanese dish combining rice with raw fish. It is basically sashimi tuna served on a bed of sushi rice, with seaweed, wasabi and ginger. Many Japanese restaurants also serve chirashi, which is the same dish but with assorted other seafood in place of the tuna. A spicy version of both is made with a mixture of oriental spices and/or spiced orange sauce, usually incorporating spring onions.
The bright red colour of raw tuna is said to be the inspiration for the name; tekka don means “red-hot iron”. It is an extremely easy dish to make if you have good sashimi-grade tuna (raw tuna that is sold to be eaten raw). Even though the dish is not complicated to make, tekkadon tastes really good and is much more exclusive than typical rice bowl dishes containing cooked ingredients. Raw tuna can be a little pricey to have for everyday lunch, but it’s great for more special occasions.
The marinade should be a simple mixture of three parts dark soy sauce; one part mirin (sweet rice wine). A word of caution: it’s important not to leave the tuna slices in the marinade for longer than 15 - 20 minutes, otherwise it becomes too salty. Because it is marinated, you can make this dish with most tuna varieties (including the larger bonito species) and it will still taste good. On a hot summer’s day, I like to chill the tuna well and combine it with the rice at the very last minute.
And finally, a fish doomed to extinction by a marketing campaign
As can be seen above, tuna is an integral, if not essential, part of sashimi, sushi and tekkadon. Bluefin tuna (known in Japan as hon-maguro or “true tuna”) is widely considered to be the pinnacle of fine sushi, especially bluefin toro - the fatty belly cuts of the fish. Judging by the lengths the Japanese are prepared to go to (not to mention the expense) one can be forgiven for assuming that eating tuna is another ages-old Japanese tradition.
In a country where most culinary traditions are ancient, this custom is a paradox, because just a few decades ago the Japanese considered toro such a disgusting part of the tuna that the only people who would eat it were impoverished manual labourers. And prior to about the 1920s, no self-respecting Japanese person would eat any kind of tuna at all if they could possibly avoid it. Tuna was so despised in Japan that all tuna species qualified for an official term of disparagement: gezakana, or “inferior fish.”
There were two main reasons for this disdain. An old Japanese name for tuna was shibi - the name is still used in some parts of Japan – and this can be interpreted as meaning “the day of death.” To the highly superstitious people of the Edo Period (1603-1868) - especially the samurai class - such pun-like coincidences were taken very seriously. So tuna acquired a reputation for being an unlucky fish. The other reason was that in the days before refrigeration, fish were kept alive for as long as possible to ensure their freshness, especially if they were prepared without heat. It was impossible to keep large tuna alive, so the flesh deteriorated rapidly. The fatty parts of the fish, which went bad before the lean parts, were so disliked that they were deemed fit only for cat food. Those same fatty parts, called toro, are now the most in-demand and pricey parts of any fish; a slice of otoro (the fatty belly meat) is one of the priciest morsels around.
When soy sauce became widely established as a cooking ingredient in old Tokyo during the mid- to late 18th century, people discovered that tuna kept longer and tasted better if it was marinated in a mixture of salty soy sauce and sweet mirin or sugar (a method called zuke) as both salt and sugar act as preservatives. Gradually tuna became more popular, but only the lean parts. With the advent of refrigeration, it became possible to freeze tuna as soon as it was caught to keep it fresh.
Because of the low-class reputation of tuna, until the 1890s most of it was consumed by the fishermen who caught it, and their families. Yet even they shunned the fatty parts. Toro has only been eaten in large quantities since the 1920s, when it was sold as cheap “emergency food” from street stalls after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Despite the historical bias against tuna on the part of the upper classes, it was widely eaten by poorer coastal communities. Many old regional recipes exist for lean tuna; the most popular being tekkadon.
Until the aftermath of World War II, tuna was considered foul-tasting compared to the prized white flounder, sea bass and mackerel, and it was mainly distributed among the poor and
homeless. This history is strikingly similar to that of a prized delicacy in the USA: the lobster. This crustacean was once served to prison inmates, before it became popular in upscale, cosmopolitan markets.
Once Japanese society began absorbing a considerable influx of American culture during the 1950s and 1960s, the Japanese began demanding fattier, American style proteins, but tuna still remained largely unwanted and sold for pennies per pound.
Then a marketing campaign changed a culture and doomed a species. As Japan’s export economy entered a golden age, Japanese airline cargo executives began promoting Atlantic bluefin for sushi so they’d have something to fill their planes with on their return trip from America to Tokyo. They created the perception that offering a respected person toro sushi was the height of hospitality. Almost incredibly, the historically inert Japanese adopted the fad and the rest, as they say, is history. The feeding frenzy that ensued continues unabated, so much so that there are credible reports showing that the Mitsubishi Corporation is stockpiling frozen bluefin in order to control the world’s inventory at inflated prices once the species cannot be found any longer.
Despite its popularity and the high prices at the dinner table, old-school sushi aficionados in Japan still think of the bluefin as a fatty, metallic tasting fish much inferior in quality to more traditional fish used for sashimi and sushi. Ironically, it seems, popularity in this market follows advertising trends, rather than tradition or the actual refined tastes of the experts. The truth can be stranger than fiction…
“The cure for all of life’s problems is salt water: sweat, tears and the sea.” – Isak Dinesen.
South Africa is one of very few countries to have cold, temperate and warm seas lapping its coastline. From Alexander Bay to Cape Agulhas, due to the influence of the Antarctic Benguella current, the sea is cold and temperatures above 15°C rare. From Cape Agulhas to the Kei River, the sub-tropical Agulhas current results in cool seas, and in summer the water temperature can exceed 20°C. From the Wild Coast to Kosi Bay the cobalt blue water of the tropical Mozambique current regularly reaches more than 25°C.
The stark difference in temperature between the sea water off our West and East coasts affects both land and sea. The Western half of South Africa is arid, with hot summers and bitterly cold winters. The Eastern half enjoys relatively high rainfall, and the coastal belt has a decidedly subtropical look and feel about it. Below the high water mark, the difference is equally visible. The cold sea off the West Coast contains a relatively small number of marine species, but all of them in massive numbers. To the East our sea life is incredibly diverse, but none of the species present are especially abundant.
The dichotomy described above applies to most endemic species, i.e. creatures that spend most of their lives in relatively shallow water near the coast in specific areas. Pelagic or oceanic fish, on the other hand, travel vast distances in large shoals and – depending on the time of year – can appear out of the blue and vanish just as quickly. Snoek and pilchards start their annual migrations off Namibia and end up on the East Coast. Dorado and marlin are generally associated with the coasts of Zululand and Mozambique, yet every year many are caught off Cape Agulhas. Tuna are also impervious to differences in water temperature: they will congregate wherever there are schools of pilchards or anchovies.
Some of our tastiest and commercially most valuable sea fishes have pelagic habits. In the following pages I will attempt to provide you some insight into these “Travelling Wilburys” and how to maximise the pleasure they provide to discerning diners.
The Dorado (Coryphaena hippurus) is one of the most beautiful fish in our waters, and a much-sought after game fish. It lives its whole life offshore and near the surface, and occurs in most temperate, subtropical and tropical waters worldwide. It is known as the dolphin fish in North America and mahi-mahi in Hawaii and Polynesia.
Dorado have elongated, compressed bodies and a single long-based dorsal fin extending from the head almost to the tail. Mature males (referred to as “bulls” by anglers) have prominent foreheads protruding well above the body proper, while females have a rounded head. They are distinguished by dazzling colours: golden on the sides, and bright blues and greens on the sides and back. The pectoral fins are iridescent blue. Out of the water, the fish often change colour, going through several hues before finally fading to a muted yellow-grey after death.
Dorado are among the fastest-growing of fish, and can reach an incredible 7 kg in just one year. They can live up to five years, although they seldom exceed four. Catches average 7 – 13 kg, and specimens over 18 kg are exceptional. They are carnivorous, feeding on flying fish, squid, mantis shrimp and any other surface-dwelling prey fish and crustaceans. Their slender bodies and powerful tails make them fast swimmers; they can reach speeds of around 50 knots (93 km/h).
Because they continually move around and are such prolific breeders, dorado are relatively abundant in areas where they occur. Males and females become sexually mature after less than six months, and females may spawn two to three times per year, and produce between 80,000 and 1,000,000 eggs per event. Dorado often lurk near debris such as floating wood, shipping containers, empty barrels, marker buoys or sea weed patches, and ambush prey from there.
Dorado are highly sought for sport fishing and commercial purposes. Sport fishermen seek them due to their beauty, size, food quality, and healthy population. They are prolific jumpers, and when hooked give a very good account of themselves. The pleasure continues after the have been subdued – the dorado is one of the tastiest fish around, with a mild clean flavour. Its flesh is firm yet juicy, and can be cooked in so many ways that it is affectionately called “the chicken of the sea” by South African aficionados. Personally I prefer it done with as little fuss as possible; grilling and pan-searing do it for me.
In the USA and Mexico, dorado is caught and eaten in large numbers. Nearly half the world’s commercially caught supply is consumed in these two countries. It is also popular in Polynesia and the Pacific Rim. Until recently most dorado were caught as by-catch by pole and long line fishermen pursuing tuna, but a specialised dorado fishery has now developed. In South Africa it used to be the preserve of offshore game fishermen, but more and more dorado can be found in fish and seafood retailers.
Grilled Dorado with Walnut and Parsley Pesto
Dorado cooked over an open fire is a treat all by itself. Add the complex flavours of a good pesto and you have a veritable feast!
Preparation time: 20minutes
Cooking time: 25 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Sauvignon Blanc or unwooded Chardonnay
6 Dorado fillets of ca. 250g each, skin on
1 Onion, thinly sliced
1 Cup walnuts, lightly toasted
1 Cup Italian parsley leaves
½ Cup green olives, pitted and chopped
½ Cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for cooking and brushing
6 Lemon wedges
Coarse sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper
- Start your fire first. For fish I prefer using charcoal, as it is relatively odourless.
- In a medium saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over moderate heat.
- Add the sliced onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 8 minutes.
- Puree the parsley leaves in a food processor, along with ¼ cup of the olive oil.
- When smooth, scrape the puree into a medium bowl.
- Add the walnuts and onion to the food processor bowl and process to a paste.
- With the machine on, slowly add the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil.
- Stir the paste into the parsley puree and season with salt and pepper.
- Brush the dorado fillets with some olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
- Braai the fillets about 300mm above moderate coals, skin side first. To make sure the heat is just right, hold the palm of one of your hands directly above the grid and count to 10. If the heat becomes unbearable before you reach 10, your fire is still too hot.
- Grill the fish until the skin is crisp, about 2 minutes.
- Turn the fillets and grill until just cooked through, about 3 minutes longer.
- Transfer the fillets to plates.
- Spread the walnut-parsley pesto over the fish.
- Top with the olives and serve with lemon wedges on the side.
The Elf (Pomatomus saltatrix) is found around the world in most temperate and subtropical waters, except for the Northern Pacific. It is known as tailor in Australia, elf in North America, anchoa in Latin America and shad in the Kwazulu-Natal province of South Africa. Its build is that of an open-side flanker: rangy and well- proportioned, with a broad, forked tail. The spiny first dorsal fin and the pectoral fins are folded back in grooves when a high-speed dash is required. Elf are blue-green in colour, with a stunning golden sheen. Their teeth can be misleading; although small they can inflict painful wounds! The teeth are uniform in size, knife-edged, and extremely sharp.
Compared to other predators the shad is a relatively small fish. In South African waters, mature elf typically range in size between 20 cm -40 cm and weigh between 1 – 3 kg. Larger specimens live alone or in small groups, and one’s best chance of encountering them is on the South or West coast during late summer. I have personally witnessed a shark fisherman catching a 9 kg elf on a whole pilchard in the Langebaan lagoon. They are found in a variety of coastal habitats: above the continental shelf, in the surf zone near surf beaches, or in bays protected by rocky headlands. They are also known to enter estuaries and periodically leave the coasts and migrate in schools through open waters.
Two of the best-known mass elf migrations occur in the USA and South Africa. Along the US East Coast, they leave Florida in early spring and range as far as Massachusetts. In years of particular abundance, stragglers may be found as far north as Nova Scotia in Canada. From October, they leave the northern waters on their return journey to the Gulf of Mexico. In South Africa, their northward trek coincides with the annual Sardine Run which starts of the Eastern Cape in autumn and ends north of Durban in spring.
Adult elf are strong and aggressive, and live in loose groups. They are fast swimmers, and prey on schools of smaller pelagic fish. They are voracious feeders, and are known to continue attacking prey in feeding frenzies even after they appear to have eaten their fill. Like bass and tigerfish they are cannibalistic and will devour their own young if all else fails. In turn, elf are preyed upon by larger predators at all stages of their lifecycle. As juveniles, they fall victim to a wide variety of oceanic predators, including leervis (aka Garrick), dusky kob, yellowtail, tuna, sharks and dolphins. As adults, elf are taken by tuna, sharks, billfish, seals, and dolphins. Their popularity with larger game fish has resulted in them being caught and used as live bait for tuna, billfish and sharks.
Once abundant along our southern and eastern seaboards, elf were nearly fished to extinction in the 1970s and 80s. Stocks were on the verge of collapse and a noticeable decline
was reversed by introducing and enforcing stringent catch limits as well as a mandatory closed season.
Elf are a remarkably fast growing species and the positive steps in conservation have resulted in a healthy and stable fishery across South Africa. It is also evident that the average sizes have increased in recent years. It is rewarding to notice the increasing reports of a notable “Blue Shad” being caught on a more regular basis.
The elf is a hard fighter for its size, and possibly our most popular rock and surf fishing quarry. What they lack in sheer pulling power, they make up for in acrobatic flair. Many Shad are lost in the breakers or ever at angler’s feet when the hooks are thrown in one of the many jumps – its species name is not saltatrix (jumper) for nothing!
Despite their popularity among anglers, elf is not particularly popular as a table fish and has little commercial importance in South Africa. The main reason is that they don’t keep long. They contain a time-sensitive compound that kicks in after three days, and turns their flesh mushy and their flavour gamey. (The same compound results in them not freezing successfully either). Unlike white, non-oily fish that can be kept on ice for several days without much harm, elf need to be absolutely fresh to be enjoyed. People who haven’t tasted fresh elf are put off by the bluish colour of its flesh and its “oiliness”.
I for one couldn’t care less about the whines of the detractors. Handled and cooked skilfully, elf are rich and succulent when just simply grilled or pan-seared and topped with a squeeze of lemon to cut their richness. But they also stand up to assertive flavours, so they taste great when hot-smoked or combined with chillies, ginger, herbs and/or garlic, which makes them extremely versatile for the cook. Smaller fish, those in the 1 – 2 kg range (with fillets weighing around 200 – 250g each), have the sweetest flesh.
If you can get your hands on some fresh elf, dare to be different – the tartness of citrus fruit is the perfect foil for the rich flesh of the elf.
Preparation time: 35 minutes
Cooking time: 8 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Chardonnay
4 Elf fillets of around 250g each; skin on
1 Cup orange juice
¼ Cup fresh lime juice
¼ Cup fresh lemon juice
¼ Cup olive oil
2 Tbsp. dry white wine
1 Tbsp. fish/seafood rub
Coarse sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper
- Place the fish fillets in a large bowl. Pour in the orange juice, lime juice, lemon juice, olive oil and white wine.
- Season with salt, pepper and seafood spice.
- Stir gently to blend and coat fish. Leave the squeezed lemon and lime halves in the bowl too.
- Marinate for at least 30 minutes.
- Preheat a steak pan for high heat.
- When the pan is hot, wipe its ridges with a bit of oil.
- Place fish fillets on the grill, skin side down.
- Cook for 4 minutes on each side, or until fish flakes with a fork.
- Transfer to a serving platter, and remove the dark blue part of the fish before serving.
Hake. Two species of this valuable fish occur in our waters; the deep water hake (Merluccius paradoxus) and the shallow water hake (Merluccius capensis). Hake belong to the same order (Gadiformes) as cod, haddock and whiting. One of life’s great tragedies is that most people will only ever taste hake that has been frozen. When frozen and then thawed, hake retains its attractive appearance and flaky texture, but loses much of its delicate flavour. Purists like the Spanish will not touch frozen merluza, but are prepared top dollar for fish that have been kept on ice at a temperature of 4 - 6°C for no more than a few days. If you have never tasted fresh hake from a reputable fishmonger, put it on your bucket list: it is one of the tastiest and most delicate fish around.
The hake is a medium to large fish averaging between 500g – 4kg in weight, but long-lived specimens reach as much as 25kg. Male and female hake are very similar in appearance. They occur in large schools in cool to cold parts of the Atlantic and Pacific and are true denizens of the deep, preferring waters from 200 – 350m deep. The schools stay in deep sea water during the day and ascend to shallower depths during the night. Hake are undiscerning predators, and hoover up any fish, crustaceans or molluscs they find near or on the bottom of the sea.
In South Africa, the hake’s “heartland” is the West Coast, where the deep water hake is still relatively abundant. Most fishing for them is done between Port Nolloth and Cape Agulhas by trawlers equipped to clean and freeze the catch at sea. Along the Southern Cape coast the shallow water hake predominates, and is caught mainly by line fishermen and long liners. One of my fondest fishing memories is of catching hake off Knysna, which involved twice sailing through the famous Knysna Heads in a small ski boat in fairly rough seas. White knuckle stuff, but well worth it!
Not all hake species are viewed as commercially important, but South Africa is fortunate in that the two species that occur in our waters (the deep water and shallow water hakes) grow rapidly and are nowadays the most sought-after of the harvested species. The bulk of the demand for hake has traditionally been from Europe, with Spain being by far the biggest consumer of hake on the Continent. Spaniards eat an average of 6 kg per capita per year. This amounts to roughly 50% of all hake eaten in Europe! Spain has incurred the wrath of many other countries with their ruthless (and often illegal) exploitation of hake wherever they can get it in order to satisfy the insatiable demand at home.
The main harvesting method for deep water hake is trawling, while shallow water hake is mostly caught by inshore trawl and long lining. As with other pelagic fish, overfishing is taking its toll on hake as well. Argentine hake catches have declined drastically, and although Argentine hake is not expected to disappear, but the population may already be so small that fishing for it is no longer commercially viable. Chilean stocks are in decline too, though not as dramatically. European hake catches are way below historical levels because the near-extinction of cod has resulted in an assault on the hake. Although South Africa’s hake population is holding its own thanks to strict controls and quotas, foreign trawlers are doing major damage to our stocks. According to the WWF, the only hake species not currently over-fished is the shallow water hake of Namibia.
Hake is quite a mild fish, with a white flaky texture and a flavour that is more subtle than that of cod. The flesh when raw is naturally very soft, but when cooked it becomes firm, with large white flakes. In France, hake is called saumon blanc (“white salmon”) because of its delicate texture. Because of its soft flesh and mild flavour, hake can be prepared in a myriad ways. To me, there is no better fish for pub-style fish and chips or a creamy fish pie. It is also a knockout hot-smoked.
I first saw this dish in one of Rick Stein’s delightful cookery series – Rick Stein Mediterranean Escapes, if I remember correctly. I have since adapted it considerably, but one thing has remained the same: the wonderful taste and texture of the fish!
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a well-chilled Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay
4 Skinless hake fillets; each about 250g
2 Dozen baby clams (preferably live and in their shells; alternatively thawed frozen ones).
5 Medium-sized garlic cloves, roughly chopped.
6 Sprigs of broad leaf (Italian) parsley, chopped.
1 Cup frozen baby peas, thawed.
150g Cake flour
1 Cup of fish stock
½ Cup of dry white wine
¼ Cup olive oil for frying
Coarse sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper
- Rub the fish with the salt and pepper and leave in a cool place for 30 minutes.
- Heat the oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan. It must just be hot enough to sizzle when the fish is introduced.
- Dust the fish lightly with the flour and cook for 1 minute on each side.
- Transfer the fish to a warm plate.
- Place the garlic and half the parsley in the pan. Cook, stirring all the while, for a minute or two.
- When the garlic becomes fragrant, add 2 Tsp. of flour and stir for another minute.
- Turn up the heat to moderate.
- Add the wine and stock, and stir until the sauce starts thickening a little.
- Return the fish to the pan. Reduce the heat and simmer for 2 minutes.
- Turn the fish over with a spatula.
- Add the clams and peas and cover the pan.
- Allow the dish to simmer for 5 minutes, shaking it occasionally.
- After 5 minutes, check the state of play. The fish should flake easily, and the clams (if using live ones in shells) should have opened. If not, cook for another minute or two.
- Stir in the remaining parsley.
- Taste the sauce and season to taste.
- Serve in deepish plates or bowls, and use some crusty bread to sop up the sauce.
The King Mackerel (Scomberomorus commerson) is a member of the Spanish Mackerel (Scombridae) family found in most of the Indian Ocean, with a population also present around Fiji in the South West Pacific. Thanks to the construction of the Suez Canal they have colonised the eastern Mediterranean, and have become a welcome additional resource for fishermen there to exploit. Because of a passing resemblance to the Great Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda) game fishermen on South Africa’s East Coast often and mistakenly refer to king mackerel as “barracuda” or “couta”.
King mackerel are handsome fish with long, streamlined bodies and a pointed snout housing a large mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. They are vivid blue to dark grey in colour along their backs and flanks, and fade to a silvery blue-grey on the belly. King mackerel have scores of narrow, vertical lines down their sides. They are the largest Scombridae species, and although the majority of fish caught range between 4 – 10 kg, they can grow to a length of 2 m and reach weights of up to 70 kg. Research in Australia concluded that the largest specimens are invariably females.
King mackerel are known to spawn off the coast of Mozambique in summer. Juvenile and young fish seek safety in numbers, and schools of them frequent the Zululand and Mozambican coasts during winter, and move south as far as the Eastern Cape during summer. “Survival of the fittest” thins out the schools so that by the time a few attain “crocodile” (trophy size) proportions they hunt in pairs or alone. Mature fish live offshore, but will often patrol the edges of coral reefs or harbour walls in search of prey. These swift fish are voracious, opportunistic predators. As with other members of the genus, food consists mainly of small fish, but when squid or mantis shrimp are plentiful kings will target them with gusto. Some experienced Zululand ski boat anglers of my acquaintance swear by fresh, naturally presented squid when hunting “crocodiles”.
During the annual sardine run up South Africa’s East Coast very large specimens are known to enter the surf zone, where they can make (but often break) some angler’s day. The biggest specimen caught by a recreational angler in South Africa weighed a whopping 49 kg and was caught off the rocks at Hibberdene in KZN during the 1975 sardine run.
Regardless of size, this is a highly valued fish throughout its range. Recreational anglers catch them from boats by trolling lures, vertical jigging or drifting bait while rock and surf anglers generally cast spoons or deploy live elf or mullet using a kite. King mackerel are strong and fast, and make long, determined runs after being hooked. They are regarded as “clean” fighters, and fight near the surface. One of the most exciting experiences one can have fully clothed is coming across a school of them while trolling lures and/or live bait. Boredom turns into frenzy in seconds when four or more reels start screaming at the same time!
There is no specialised commercial king mackerel fishery in South Africa, but in South and South-East Asia they are targeted by trawlers and seine net fishermen. They are common sights on fish markets in India, Sri Lanka and the Indonesia, where dried king mackerel is used in the same way as bacalhao and flakes of the dried fish is added to many dishes as a substitute for fish sauce.
The texture, taste and flavour of fresh king mackerel are out of the top drawer. Sadly, they do not freeze well using conventional appliances. Unless one is able to rapidly “superfreeze” it to -40°C, it will lose most of its exquisite flavour within a few days, because the oily compound responsible only freezes below -30°C. My advice is therefore a) if you are an angler, practice catch and release, and kill only enough for supper or b) if you’re not, only eat king mackerel in restaurants on the coast that source fresh fish from local fishermen.
Fresh king mackerel is a wonderfully versatile fish; it tastes superb grilled, pan-fried, baked, smoked, curried or as ceviche.
King Mackerel Grilled Inhaca Style
The best fish meal my wife and I have had in Southern Africa was grilled king mackerel cutlets from a fish I had caught three hours earlier. The friendly staff at Pestana Inhaca Island Lodge had the finished product – along with chips and a salad – on our plates before we could finish our second Caiparinha!
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Chardonnay or dry Riesling
4 King mackerel cutlets of 250 – 300 g each
Zest of 1 lemon
1 Tsp. fresh thyme, chopped
1 Tsp. fresh oregano, chopped
1 Tsp. grated lemon rind
1 Tsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
¼ Tsp. salt
¼ Tsp. freshly-ground black pepper
- Pre-heat your oven’s grill.
- Combine the lemon zest and juice, oil, thyme, oregano, salt, and black pepper.
- Coat a baking sheet with non-stick spray.
- Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.
- Place the fish in the pan, skin side up.
- Fry the cutlets for 5 minutes without turning.
- Transfer them to the baking sheet – still skin side up - and drizzle with the basting mixture.
- Cook for 5 minutes under the piping hot grill.
- Serve with chips or roast potatoes and a green salad.
Sardine" and "pilchard" are colloquial names used – often interchangeably - to refer to various small, oily fish within the herring family (Clupeidae) The terms "sardine" and "pilchard" are not exact, and I personally stick with the rule of thumb that sardines are young pilchards; fish shorter than 15 cm are sardines, and larger fish are pilchards. The term sardine was first used in English during the early 15th century and may come from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, around which sardines were once abundant. The species that occur in South African waters is Sardinops ocellatus or South African pilchard.
Ocellatus are handsome little fish: sleek, with a bright blue back and silver flanks with black dots that appear like portholes. Their fins are transparent with a golden sheen. They are among the larger species in their family, and under favourable conditions they can grow to a length of 30 cm. The bulk of the specimens caught are more likely to be around 20 cm, though. Pilchards feed almost exclusively on zooplankton (animal plankton), and will congregate wherever this is abundant. They spend the daylight hours in deep water offshore, and follow their prey upwards at night, when the zooplankton seems to be attracted by star- and moonlight.
The annual Sardine Run is one of the most spectacular events in the natural world. The pilchards react to the urge to spawn by leaving their home waters off the West coast, congregating in massive schools in their millions and rounding Cape Agulhas en route to spawning grounds off the Tugela River estuary in KZN. They usually stay well offshore until they reach the Transkei Wild Coast in late autumn. By June the excitement among fishermen on the KZN reaches fever pitch when the first schools are spotted, darkening the blue sea for miles.
Hordes of local people follow the schools; one could be forgiven for likening them to the crowd following players at a major golf tournament! These are people who don’t have the luxury of a ski boat, and they are all hoping and praying that the prevailing wind and current will drive the schools into the surf zone. Here that a human feeding frenzy awaits them, with people using nets, buckets and even the shirts off their backs to harvest as many fish as they can. While a lot of the fish caught will be eaten, a large part of the catch is destined for freezing and use as bait. There is no doubt that this humble little fish is the number one bait for marine sport fishing in South Africa.
Pilchards have been the mainstay of South Africa’s pelagic fishing industry for nearly a century. Most are caught using purse nets. Their habit of congregating in huge schools make them particularly vulnerable to over-exploitation by fishing fleets equipped with sophisticated detection equipment. Fishing occurs mainly at night, when the schools approach the surface to feed on plankton. The catch is put to a variety of uses: consumption as fresh fish, canning, packaging as bait, pet food, drying, salting, smoking and for reduction into fish meal or oil. The oil has many uses, including the manufacture of paint, varnish or linoleum.
Pilchards and sardines are rich in vitamins and minerals. They are also a natural source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce the occurrence of cardiovascular disease. Recent studies suggest that regular consumption of omega-3 fatty acids also reduces the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Because they are short-lived and low in the marine food chain, Sardinops species are very low in contaminants such as mercury relative to longer-lived large fish commonly eaten by humans like tuna or hake.
It saddens me that – given the health benefits mentioned above, as well as their great taste – we South Africans largely continue to relegate pilchards to rations for the poor and pets and feeds for farm animals. To add insult to injury, we pay massive premiums for popular fish that are on the verge of extinction, and contain hefty doses of toxins to boot!
Sardine species are valued much more by Mediterranean people, most notably Iberians. In Portugal and Spain, they are enjoyed grilled, pickled or smoked, or preserved in cans. The Portuguese have a particular affinity for them, and the culinary centrepiece of the annual festival of St Anthony is sardines cooked over open charcoal fires.
Grilled Pilchards, San Antonio style
This dish elevates the humble pilchard to a delicacy. Try it once and you’ll be “hooked”!
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Vinho Verde or Cape Riesling
12 Large whole pilchards, scaled and gutted
3 Large potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 Tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 Red onion, halved then thinly sliced
1 Lemon, quartered
1 Red and 1 yellow sweet pimento pepper
1 Tbsp. smoked paprika
4 Tbsp. olive oil, plus a bit extra to brush
2 Tsp. sea salt flakes
1 Tsp. lemon juice
4 Coriander sprigs, roughly chopped
- Pre-heat your oven to 180C.
- Cook the potatoes in a pot of salted water for 10 minutes until almost tender, then drain.
- Toss the potatoes with the paprika and 2 Tbsp. oil.
- Season and spread on a large lined baking tray, then roast for 20 minutes or until golden.
- Meanwhile, heat a chargrill pan on medium-high heat.
- Brush the peppers with a little extra olive oil and grill or barbecue for 4-5 minutes, turning, until the skins blister.
- Set aside in a bowl and cover in plastic wrap.
- When cool enough to handle, peel and cut into strips.
- Place the pepper strips in a bowl with the cooked potatoes, then toss with the tomatoes, onion, coriander, lemon juice and remaining 2 Tbsp. oil. Season with salt and pepper.
- Increase the heat under the chargrill pan to high.
- Brush the sardines and the grill with a little more oil to help prevent sticking.
- Sprinkle the sardines all over with the sea salt, then cook them for 2 - 3 minutes on each side. The skins should be scorched and bubbling.
- Divide the sardines among 4 plates, then top with the salad and serve with the lemon wedges.
Snoek (Thyrsites atun) is an elongated predatory fish found in cool seas all around the Southern Hemisphere. In Australasia it is called barracouta (although it is not related to either the great barracuda or king mackerel) and in South America sierra. It can reach a length of 200 cm - though most do not exceed 75 cm – and a weight of 9 kg. It is of considerable commercial importance, and a popular sport fish as well.
The snoek is normally found near continental shelves or around islands and feeds mainly on small fish like anchovies and pilchards. They form schools near the bottom or mid-water, and prefer sea water temperature between 13 - 18 °C. In Southern African waters snoek occur off the coast of Namibia and the coasts of the Northern and Western Cape provinces of South Africa. It was originally called the zeesnoek (Sea Snoek) by Dutch colonists who arrived in the Cape in 1652, because it reminded them of the freshwater pike (snoek) found in the Netherlands.
Snoek have a relatively predictable migratory pattern. In late summer they appear off Namibia, making their way steadily South. When concentrations of baitfish or mantis shrimp are encountered the schools of snoek will pause and feed greedily. By autumn they appear on the Cape West Coast, and normally pause in and around St Helena Bay to feast on the plentiful schools of anchovies, mackerel and maasbanker found there. When the winter rains start, snoek make their appearance in False Bay, where artisanal fisherman pursue them with their stout hand lines. By September the schools embark on the last leg of their migration and spend time in Walker Bay and along the Agulhas Coast. Mossel Bay is normally the end of the line for them.
Snoek is usually bought fresh at the quayside, where skilled cleaners deftly butterfly one’s purchase with razor-sharp knives. In and around the Cape Peninsula, this may be at Hout Bay, Kalk Bay and as far as Gordon’s Bay. Up the West Coast and eastwards towards Mossel Bay, much of the catch is salted and air dried for local consumption. Those lovers of snoek unable to make it to a fishing harbour rely on middlemen known as langaans, who buy the fish in bulk from the fishermen and then sell them on a retail basis in the suburbs and along the major motorways. Snoek is oily, extremely bony (although the bones are large and easily removed from the cooked fish) and has very fine scales which are almost undetectable, making it unnecessary to scale the fish while cleaning.
It is mostly sold fresh, but fishmongers and supermarkets also offer smoked, salted and frozen snoek. It is a fairly versatile fish, and responds well to frying, braaiing, grilling, baking and simmering. It is safe to say that South Africans prefer their snoek on the braai or in the smoker, but in the Western Cape it is often simmered (“smoorsnoek”) and deep-fried in batter. Another favourite technique is to cook it wrapped up in aluminium foil with butter and herbs. and serving it with boiled sweet potatoes and "tamatiesmoor" - a fried up hash of chopped tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs. Another favourite is a kedgeree made with smoked snoek.
The Cape Malay community have a particularly strong affection for snoek. It is the foundation for many traditional Bo-Kaapse dishes. These include smoorsnoek (simmered), snoekbredie (stewed), snoek bobotie (baked with a sweet curry) and snoek pâtés. In the subsistence fishing communities of the West Coast, snoek is cleaned and then packed in layers; heavily salted with coarse salt. After a few days the cured fish are then hung up to air dry. The finished product is used much the same way as Portuguese bacalhao – it is soaked in changes of fresh water until rehydrated and soft. It is then added to soups, stews and casseroles and eaten with a variety of staples – potatoes, sweet potatoes or rice.
Snoek has had mixed press over the years. In the Cape it is an iconic foodstuff, and is eaten with gusto by locals – whether fresh, smoked or braaied. It is also salted and dried, Bacalhau-style. For obvious reasons, the dried fish has to be rehydrated and the salt rendered before Soutsnoek can be cooked. During World War II, when Britain experienced food shortages due to the U-Boat blockade, South Africa exported huge quantities of it to the UK. Because cooks there were not familiar with the rehydration process, they didn’t soak the fish for long enough. This led to the finished product being both tough and very salty. To this day, older Britons shudder at the mere mention of the word Snoek.
This is one of the best ways to enjoy snoek, plus one of the most authentic ones. It combines the Cape’s favourite fish with Cape Malay flavours. Simply substitute the mince in your traditional bobotie for some smoked snoek.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Gewürztraminer or Viognier
600g Smoked snoek, skin and bones removed and flaked
400g Tinned tomatoes, chopped
3 Large eggs
1 Large onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 Garlic cloves, crushed
A 2 cm-long piece of ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
2 Slices white bread
2 Cups milk
2 Tbsp. dried sultanas
1 Tsp. ground cumin
1 Tsp. ground coriander
1 Tsp. mild curry powder
4 Bay leaves
2 Tbsp. sunflower oil
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
- Preheat your oven to 180°C.
- Place the bread in a bowl, pour over ½ a cup milk and leave to soak.
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat and fry the onion until soft.
- Add the ginger, garlic and spices, and cook for 2 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes and simmer until the mixture has reduced and thickened.
- Squeeze the excess milk from the bread and break it up into chunks.
- Add the bread, sultanas and snoek to the pot and stir to combine.
- Transfer the mixture to an ovenproof dish and top with bay leaves.
- Beat the eggs with the remaining milk, and season.
- Pour this mixture over the fish.
- Place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until the egg has set.
- Serve on rice, with plenty of chutney on the side.
Yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) is found in most tropical and subtropical waters worldwide. It is one of the larger tuna species, reaching weights over 180 kg, but is significantly smaller than the bluefin tuna, which can reach over 450 kg and slightly smaller than the bigeye tuna. The second dorsal and anal fins, as well as the finlets between those fins and the tail, are bright yellow, giving this fish its common name. The second dorsal and anal fins can be very long in mature specimens, reaching almost as far back as the tail and giving the appearance of scimitars.
Yellowfin tuna inhabit the mixed surface layer of the ocean above the thermocline. While they mostly range in the top 100 m of the water column, they are capable of diving to considerable depths. Although mainly found in deep offshore waters, they occasionally venture well inshore of the continental shelf when water temperature and clarity are suitable and food is abundant. Yellowfins often travel in schools with similar-sized companions. They sometimes school with other tuna species and mixed schools of small yellowfin, and skipjack tuna, in particular, are commonplace. They also swim along with various species of dolphins as well as with larger marine creatures such as whales, Orcas and whale sharks.
Yellowfin tuna prey on other fish, pelagic crustaceans and squid. Like all tunas, their body shape is particularly adapted for speed, enabling them to pursue and capture fast-moving baitfish such as flying fish and mackerel. Schooling species such as anchovies, sardines and Maasbanker (horse mackerel) are frequently taken. Large yellowfins prey on smaller members of the tuna family such as bonitos and skipjack tuna. In turn, yellowfin are preyed upon when young by other pelagic hunters, including larger tuna, sea birds, and predatory fishes such as wahoo, shark and billfish.
They are able to escape most predators, because unlike most other fish, they are warm-blooded, and their warm muscles make them extremely strong swimmers, with yellowfin tuna reaching speeds of up to 80 km per hour. They also have the stamina to navigate enormous distances, sometimes crossing entire oceans.
The Cape Peninsula is today the epicentre of a thriving tuna fishery, and both commercial and sport fisherman make exceptional catches. Yellowfins make up the bulk of the fish caught, but the smaller and less palatable longfin tuna is also common. The once abundant bluefin is sadly in terminal decline worldwide, and no longer worth pursuing. South African yellowfin tunas seem to prefer the cooler waters of the Cape in summer, but also follow the Sardine Run north in winter.
The yellowfin tuna is a popular sport fish in many parts of their range and are prized for their speed and strength when fought on rod and reel. Many anglers believe that large yellowfin are, pound for pound, the fastest and strongest of all big game tunas. Sport fishermen also prize it for its culinary qualities. Today, yellowfin tuna are a major sport fish pursued by sport fishermen in many parts of the world. Thousands of anglers fish for yellowfin tuna along the eastern seaboard of the United States, in California, Hawaii, Mexico, the Caribbean, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Purse-seine nets account for more of the commercial catch than any other method. The purse-seine fishery primarily operates in the Pacific Ocean, in the historic tuna grounds of the San Diego tuna fleet in the eastern Pacific, and in the islands of the western Pacific, where many U.S. tuna canneries relocated in the 1980s, but significant purse-seine catches are also made in the Indian Ocean and in the tropical parts of the Atlantic Ocean.
Purse seining for yellowfin tuna became highly controversial in the late 1970s when it became apparent that the eastern Pacific fishery was killing many dolphins and porpoises that hunt alongside the schools of fish. In response to the public outcry, the industry introduced “dolphin-friendly” methods. One was to focus on "free schools" not accompanied by dolphins, and the other the use of long lining. While the latter method has resulted in far fewer dolphins being killed, it has merely shifted the environmental impact, as it takes an especially heavy toll on billfish, sea turtles, pelagic sharks, and sea birds.
Most of the commercial catch is canned, but the growing popularity of sushi and sashimi has resulted in huge demand for high-quality fish. This market is primarily supplied by industrial tuna long line vessels. Tuna long liners target larger sashimi-grade fish of 25 kg and more that swim deeper in the water column. Large yellowfin is becoming a popular replacement for the severely depleted supplies of bluefin tuna. Buyers recognize two grades, "sashimi grade" and "other", although variations in the quality of "other" grades are common. Only unfrozen fish kept on ice for less than 48 hours and specimens “superfrozen” at sea are accorded “sashimi grade” status.
Barbecued Tuna Kebabs
The key to this dish is to sear the fish on the outside but leaving it pink and juicy on the inside. If you’re using bamboo kebab sticks, soak them in water for about half an hour to prevent them from burning on the braai, or invest in a set of metal ones that you can re-use forever.
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Colombard or Chenin Blanc
4 Tuna steaks, about 150 - 200g each, cut into 5cm³ cubes
1 Pineapple, peeled, cut into 3cm³ cubes
1 Yellow bell pepper, cut into 3cm² pieces
2 Cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. fresh Italian parsley, chopped
½ Tsp. oregano, chopped
½ Cup orange juice
¼ Cup soya sauce
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tsp. fish or seafood spice
1 Tsp. sea salt flakes (I use Cerebos Fleur de Sel flakes)
½ Tsp. ground ginger
½ Tsp. freshly-ground black pepper
- Start a charcoal fire in your braai first.
- Make the marinade by mixing together all the ingredients except the tuna, pineapple and bell pepper in a large bowl.
- Transfer the cubes of tuna to the mixing bowl and gently rub the marinade into the flesh.
- Let it rest for at least 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile heat a dash of cooking oil to a fireproof pan and fry the pineapple with the ginger until the pineapple starts caramelising.
- Remove from the heat, allow to cool and then start putting the kebabs together.
- Serve with lemon wedges and parsleyed potatoes.
- Skewer a cube of tuna, a slice of pineapple and a piece of bell pepper onto a kebab stick and repeat. Do not overcrowd the kebab.
- Braai the kebabs about 300mm above moderate coals, skin side first. To make sure the heat is just right, hold the palm of one of your hands directly above the grid and count to 10. If the heat becomes unbearable before you reach 10, your fire is still too hot.
- Cook the fish until caramelised, about 5 minutes per side.
The Yellowtail (Seriola lalandi), is a large predatory fish found in large schools in many parts of the Southern Ocean. Because of their long and swift migrations, little is known about the yellowtail's biology, including their habitat preferences, migration patterns, and reproductive behaviour. What is known is that adults are attracted to rocky outcrops and associated drop-offs in coastal waters, and in deep water near pinnacles and offshore islands.
They are closely related to the greater amberjack (Seriola dumerili) of the North Atlantic and Pacific. These brutes can weigh up to 70 kg, and are feared and respected by sport fishermen. The yellowtail is known as “yellowtail kingfish” in Australasia and albacora in Chile. “Our” yellowtails spend much of their lives in the cold Atlantic waters off Cape Point. During the annual Sardine Run, however, they migrate up the East Coast to feast on the huge schools of pilchards. Cape yellowtails generally weigh somewhere between 2 – 20kg, but can grow to a length of 2m and a weight of 45kg.
Smaller yellowtail – the 3 – 10kg class - form large schools of similar-sized fish that roam offshore, at depths of up to 110m. Larger fish are encountered in small groups, pairs and often alone. They are fast torpedo-shaped predatory fish that feed on smaller fish and squid. They prefer turbulent water and tidal rips, and become lethargic in warm, still water. They appear during the warmer months of summer and autumn, and are at their most active in water between 16 - 20°C. When yellowtail start forcing bait fish or squid into “bait balls” their presence is given away by terns and gannets that join in the excitement.
The sight of “working” birds drives most boat fishermen wild with excitement, because yellowtails are highly prized light tackle sport fish. They are tough fighters, fast and rugged and are renowned for powerful deep diving runs to deep reefs once hooked. Skippers usually search for schools of yellowtail by slow trolling of lures or baitfish through likely areas until fish start striking. Once a school is located, drift baits, spinning and vertical jigging can be used to good effect. Whereas sport fishermen generally prefer using the latter two techniques, professional fishermen stick to bait and often use stout hand lines so as to maximise the number of fish boated in the available time.
Yellowtail is an important commercial line-fish species in the Western Cape. There is no minimum legal size at which yellowtail may be caught, but since most females only reach sexual maturity at 1.2m (between 2 - 3 years of age) and most males at 900cm, it is vitally important that anglers and fisheries ensure that smaller yellowtail are not removed from the ocean as they still need time to mature and reproduce. Fortunately they are prolific breeders, and the rapid and seemingly erratic way in which schools move around makes catching them in nets a fool’s errand. At the time of writing (January 2017) the population seems to be in decent shape and coping well with fishing pressure.
The flesh of a yellowtail is firm, has a pleasant flavour and is somewhat dry. Over-cooking it is therefore fatal. To me the answer lies in being pragmatic in your approach: use younger fish (below 10kg) for sashimi, sushi, grilling and braaiing and smoke or pickle bigger specimens. Fish under the grill or on the braai should be liberally basted and removed from the heat the moment the flesh turns opaque throughout. Because of its firm texture, yellowtail is one of my favourite species for hot smoking and by far the best for pickling in Malay curry. Whereas other fish will eventually disintegrate from the acidity of the curry sauce, yellowtail cutlets will remain intact and firm for more than 3 months if kept cool.
Char-Grilled Yellowtail Fillets with Tahini Sauce
The Middle Eastern flavours in this dish complement the rich flavour of the yellowtail well. The currants add a surprising sweet note to the salad, which can be made a couple of hours ahead of time.
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Viognier or Chenin Blanc
For the fish:
4 Yellowtail fillets of about 225g each, skin on
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt flakes and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
For the Tahini sauce:
2 Tbsp. tahini paste
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
½ Tsp. crushed garlic
For the parsley salad:
1 Cup Italian flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
3 Shallots, finely sliced
⅓ Cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
¼ cup Currants, soaked in hot water for 10 minutes then drained and dried
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
Sea salt flakes and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
- First make the Tahini Sauce. Combine all the ingredients with 2 tablespoons of cold water and mix well.
- The tahini will become very thick when the water is first added, continue stirring and it will thin out; add more water if necessary, a little at a time, until it becomes the consistency of pouring cream.
- Next make the parsley salad: combine all ingredients and mix well.
- Next, heat a griddle pan over medium-high heat.
- Cut several diagonal slashes into the skin of the fish, brush well with olive oil and sprinkle it with salt and pepper.
- Cook, skin side down first, for 2 - 3 minutes, then turn and cook for a further 2. The flesh should be opaque and flake easily when tested with a fork.
- Divide the salad between the plates, place the fish on top and drizzle with the tahini sauce.
“Bluefin tuna is sort of like the cheetah of the ocean. It's the fastest fish. It's a warm-blooded fish. But it's got a $100,000 price tag on its head.” - Paul Watson.