Attitudes to different fish species have changed dramatically in recent years, with fish once regarded as good only for bait now treated as fine table fare.
Fish like trevally and kahawai had an underserved bad reputation, squid was bait and tuna belonged in cans. Now calamari or salt and pepper squid graces most menus, tuna is served raw or chargilled at premium prices and we even eat pilchards. Do people really think the ‘sardines’ at fashionable restaurants actually come from Sardinia? They are eating-quality pilchards caught in Northland waters for the bait market.
Premium fish is also becoming more expensive, and so-called second rate species fit more household budgets. Fish like hoki, ling, red cod, mackerel and others are fine as fish and chips or in a pie.
The key to making fish palatable is in how they are treated.
For the best results, fresh caught fish should go straight into a salt ice-seawater slurry
Much of our improved fish-handling techniques have come from the commercial sector, who in turn have learnt from the Japanese who take the post-capture treatment of seafood very seriously. But there are a number of salient points worth noting — the most important being bleeding, dispatch, icing and packaging.
Some retailers try and squeeze the maximum shelf life out of fish which is probably at least six days old when they receive it. Customers can identify fish which is too old. It will be pale, washed out and limp; most likely sitting in melted ice water. It’s a factory for bacteria. True fresh fish will have bright colour, clear eyes, bright red gills and when a finger is pushed on it the flesh will spring back into shape. There should be no strong fishy odour, but a pleasant ocean smell.
Iki Jime is a Japanese term for live killing. It is a more humane way of dispatching a fish destined for the table than having it bouncing around on a hot deck or in a fish tub. When done properly, Iki spiking destroys the brain, which controls movement, and will therefore stop flesh bruising from the fish flapping around. Bruising is a major factor in poor flesh quality and this is why longliners carry foam mattresses to lay tuna on while they are being processed. The correct angle for inserting the Iki spike varies slightly with the type fish. For fish like snapper it is on the side, above and behind the eye; and for round-bodied fish like tuna or kahawai it is between the eyes angled back 45 degrees.
A firm push down into the centre of the skull should have the desired effect. When done properly the fish will convulse momentarily, then go limp.
There are a number of Iki Jime spikes on the market, but a sharpened Philips screwdriver is a popular alternative. Even a short-bladed knife works well as it destroys the whole brain when twisted.
Bleeding a fish also improves the taste, and this is traditionally associated with kahawai. For tuna a knife is inserted three fingers’ width behind both pectoral fins right on the lateral line, penetrating all the way to the backbone. This severs major arteries and the blood flows copiously. For other fish like snapper, kahawai and kingfish running a knife around the membrane connecting the gill arch or severing the throat altogether will see them bleed out. A rope through the gills and out through the mouth allows the fish to be hung over the side to keep blood out of the boat.
When properly bled, fillets from white-fleshed fish will be almost opalescent in colour. Fillets from un-bled fish will be an unappetising grey due to the blood still present in the flesh, and will have a stronger fishy taste when cooked.
There is an old saying : Every hour in the sun reduces the shelf life of a fish by one day.
The old days of dropping fresh-caught fish into a wet hessian sack are long gone. Now, a chilly bin containing an ice slurry is the best way to chill fish. It is a combination of ice and seawater.
The slurry consists of three parts salt ice to one part sea water; not fresh water. This will have a temperature of –1°C and it is important to get the fish’s core body temperature down as quickly as possible. This also sets the flesh, which makes fish easier to fillet. Saltwater flake ice makes the best slurry, as it has a lower melting point than fresh water ice. To dispel a common myth : Salt ice is not made from seawater, but by adding salt to fresh water which produces a much higher salt content.
Fish do not have to be gutted or filleted immediately if they are well covered in an ice slurry. In fact, the eating quality improves if fish are allowed to set, just like an animal is hung in a chiller for some time before processing. They can also be wrapped in newspaper and then a plastic bag and kept overnight in the fridge. The paper absorbs juices which would leak from holes pricked in the bag by sharp fins, and when filleted the following day the flesh will be firm and solid, much easier to cut than when freshly caught.
One thing fish fillets do not like is plastic and moisture. The worst thing that could be done is to wash fillets in fresh water and put them in a plastic bag and refrigerate. The flesh sweats in the bag and lies in the juices, and it will go off quickly. It is best rinsed in seawater and if this is not available a wipe with a paper towel is preferable to tap water. Fresh water removes some of the natural oils, affecting the taste
Bite times are 3.25am and 3.50pm today and 4.15am and 4.40pm tomorrow.
Tip of the week
When spending time in the bush or camping a make-shift cooler can be created by filling a small chilly bin a third full of water and putting the whole bin in the freezer for a few days so it freezes solid. This will last for several days, depending on how often it is opened.