Salt to Taste Fish, wherever it comes from, will soothe and satisfy when everything else fails. The cure for anythin...

Cracking the Code: Your Guide to Cooking Fish

1 September 2016




Salt to Taste

Fish, wherever it comes from, will soothe and satisfy when everything else fails.

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea. 

-Isak Dinesen

When I read this the other day, it struck a quick note—of course, when toiling and tearing up have been exhausted, it’s time to look towards the calming waters. And maybe what lies within. Fresh water of the rivers, lakes, and ponds is totally welcome too. After all, fish, wherever it comes from, will soothe, satiate and satisfy when everything else fails.

Fish—the back-boned, aquatic creature found in the form of some 33,000 species in almost all of the aquatic environments across the Blue Planet. Most of the definitions for fish always end up showing exceptions: not all fish need some form of water to survive; some, including the commonly consumed walking catfish or magur can wiggle across dry land, while lungfish found in parts of Africa and South America survive in dried-up river bottoms, deep down. Fish were considered cold-blooded animals; the study of opah or moonfish that has been showing up on dining plates for years led to an interesting discovery last year—it can regulate its own body temperature, or is endothermic. A big leap for fishkind, higher than any flying fish has ever been.


Bait-and-Switch

Fugu poison is 1200 times the strength of cyanide, but doesn’t stop diners in Japan from eating it.

Marine biology has to be one of the most interesting scientific pursuits; what can be more exciting than studying and discovering new species ever so often of ocean dwellers that inhabit the inaccessible depths? Especially when the world around seems to be one colossal aquarium, with creatures around that make for obsessive, open-mouthed Nat Geo viewing. Of course, if you’re a fish, you’d better keep that oral crevice shut; there are plenty of takers for that tasty meat. 

Not all fish are safe to be eaten though; some are poisonous and can cause instant death. Generally, most poisonous fish have round or boxy bodies, and live in the shallow waters surrounding reefs and lagoons. The most poisonous fish is the fugu, as the pufferfish is known in Japan. Fugu poison is 1200 times the strength of cyanide, and is concentrated in the liver, ovaries and the eyes of the fish. Not all people jump off airplanes or dive into unknown waters to experience thrill; some of them order fugu prepared by a chef with at least 3 years of training in handling and serving the blowfish, as is deemed by law. 

But let’s talk about the safe to eat, easily prepped and cooked, full-of-nutritional-benefits fish that you can find in the local markets or order online. Fish is such a versatile, delicious ingredient that is favoured by almost all cuisines globally. It wouldn’t be preposterous to say that no two varieties of fish taste the same; along with strong-flavoured, you have mild-tasting kinds, which may be oily or lean, with white or coloured flesh, with a delicate, firm or flaky texture. Fish should be fresh-tasting (of the sea) unless it’s dried or preserved in other ways which makes the flavours deepen. Unprocessed fish should smell ‘fresh’, the eyes should be clear, gills pink and skin firm to touch. 

Fish-ie Rich

Salmon is not only an omega-3 bomb, its pretty colour makes for beautiful-looking dishes.

Fish has been called ‘one of the healthiest foods on the planet’, and this recognition is not unwarranted by any stretch. Loaded with protein and vitamin D and other vitamins and minerals depending on the variety, fish is a nutritionist’s delight. And in this case, fat is good; fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines etc. are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which are strongly linked with healthy heart functioning and other benefits. 

Like other meats, fish is highly perishable, and needs to be stored at appropriate temperature levels for consumption. Inadequate storage conditions lead to a loss in quality, flavour and nutrition, so it’s important to buy fish that reaches you in prime condition, whether you opt for fresh or frozen. If cooking with the latter, thawing according to package instructions will ensure best results. It’s important to remember to maintain storage conditions for fish that you are not cooking right away; so frozen fish needs to go into the freezer.

The varieties of edible fish available will please any food lover, and there are several hundreds of recipes you could play with. Depending on the type of fish and cut the recipe calls for, you could ask your fishmonger to prep your purchase for you, or you could opt for ready cleaned cuts. Also, owing to the versatility of aquatic produce, you could substitute one kind for another comparable variety and still end up with similar results. So a tilapia can step in for white snapper (porgies), as well as rainbow trout, while cobia will work in a pinch when albacore tuna or Chilean sea bass are not available. Mackerel and tuna (choora) both are dark and oily fish, as is lighter-coloured salmon, even if the cuts they come in may vary.

So Many Ways I Can Love You

Fried fish is a classic everywhere.

Cooking fish is a breeze; that is, when you consider the time actually spent cooking fish. The rest of prep for the dish may be as simple or elaborate as you choose. Also, fish lends itself very well to several cooking techniques; some varieties, however, may be more suited to a specific style. So a firm fish like halibut (potha), or even a hardy tuna will stand up well to BBQing, while flat fish like mackerel or turbot is great on the grill. For deep-frying a crispy Fish and Chips, aside from classic cod, catfish or swordfish are other choices. Baking asks for a sturdy salmon or swordfish, while tilapia and kingfish are viable contenders for broiling. Oily fish like salmon can be pan-fried in a non-stick pan, and doesn’t even need a smear of oil, for it releases its own, as Marco Pierre White says. For stewing or braising, as in a curry, choose a sturdy fish that can take the high heat and will stay intact.

Cooking times for an oily fish may be slightly higher, Shumu Gupta, Fishvish co-founder, explains. Also, if you need to marinate your fish, you shouldn’t need more than 30 minutes of total marinating time. Many recipes call for an acid, like vinegar or lime or lemon to marinate fish. It’s important to not leave the fish marinating for too long, because the acid ‘cooks’ the fish, breaking down the flesh. Unless you’re making ceviche, of course.

For gorgeous-looking curries, you need to make sure you’re using the right fish cut of an appropriate thickness, that’ll hold shape even when braised in hot liquid.

When pan-searing fish, if you’re using fillets with skin, start with searing the skin side first in the pan, and then turn over. The fillet will hold shape better this way. Also, take care to ensure you’re not drying your fillets or steaks out by leaving them on the heat for too long. Whether you’re frying, grilling, baking or stewing fish, it’ll continue to cook even when off the heat, so account for that time too. For curries or panfried fish, you want to use appropriate cuts—curry cut or steaks or fillets—of the right thickness so they can withstand the heat. Fish, when perfectly done, flakes easily with a fork and is still moist to taste. 

It’s not only the cooking technique but also the flavour of the fish you’re using that makes a difference. Bijal Patel, co-founder Fishvish, points us towards the recently concluded Season 8 of Masterchef Australia as an example. One of the 3 finalists used kingfish along with lobster for a mousse to go inside his dish of lobster cannelloni; he was told that the former being a fatty fish may not go well with what-should-be a light and creamy mousse. He never made it to the grand finale. Sometimes you may need to choose a fish that showcases the best flavours of the other ingredients. Shumu gives the example of a neutral-tasting basa; it has quickly caught on in the restaurant scene, since it can take on the strongest of bold Indian masalas, the spice mixes that we so love.


To Cook Up a Story

From sweet and sour fish to sushi, Asian cuisines have it all.

Mix up those fragrant spices into a paste and smear on a firm surmai steak for an appetizer of tawa surmai. Colourful spices, combined with other aromatics and coconut, tame the strong flavours of bangda to form an unctuous crimson bangda curry. Of course, when it comes to rich fish curries, each state in India has a proud delicious repertoire. Take inspiration from the light flavours of Kashmiri Machchi Pahalgam, or the mustard oil-laden aromas of Bengali maach. There’s a whole Konkan coastline to compile region-wise recipes, or if you go down south, there are bold and hot, and delicate and mild flavours to greet you. For cooking inspiration, here are loads of delish recipes for flavourful meals. 

You may need more than a lifetime probably to cover fish dishes from across the world, but maybe starting with the classics will make it simpler. Britain has more than Fish and Chips, and Australia too makes the most of the waters surrounding it. France, of course, adds elegance to everyday fish dishes too, and the Scandinavian countries have fish as a part of local culture. The US loves its fish fingers and more, while South America combines flavourful tropical ingredients with marine produce. A lot of fish dishes from Asia showcase brilliant techniques and cooking styles married to flavoursome ingredients, while Africa has its own unusual take on the bounty from the rivers and the oceans.

The golden rule of wine pairing for fish may have been to follow the old command of white with white, but do feel free to look towards the rosés and light, crisp reds too, based on the composition of your dish. And adding some of these whilst you cook the fish is, sometimes, the only rule you need to follow.

You may choose to make your fish swim in butter, and in wine to make it taste right, but it will first sing of the world of water it came from, a world of fascinating life with many, many secrets.



About the Author
An incorrigible gastronome, Rupika V is on a perpetual quest to find the best food around, and will happily travel far to find it.


Image Credit: Cover
Image Credit: Salt to Taste
Image Credit: Bait-and-Switch
Image Credit: Fish-ie Rich
Image Credit: So Many Ways I Can Love You
Image Credit: So Many Ways I Can Love You
Image Credit: To Cook Up a Story
Image Credit: To Cook Up a Story
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