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Chef aiming to dispel fish dish myths

By Features Reporter

Chef and author Josh Niland.Pictures: PA Photo/Hardie Grant/Rob Palmer
Chef and author Josh Niland.Pictures: PA Photo/Hardie Grant/Rob Palmer

Australian chef Josh Niland is hoping to change the conversation around fish cookery and encourage us to eat much more than the odd fillet.

Check out his new cookbook and you will see a literal representation of its title – a whole fish (a bass grouper), severed into its many edible, cookable parts. All 31 of them.

There are, it turns out, far more parts of a fish that deserve a lick of heat and a hit of salt than you might think.

The Whole Fish Cookbook distils Niland's belief that we should treat fish cookery with the same confidence we do meat, in terms of the actual hob action as well as the butchery that comes first.

His aim is to arm us with some methods "beyond just pan frying", to diversify the kind of fish we're bringing home, and make us think about seafood a little differently.

Take a tuna cheek compared to a beef cheek. Sure, you'll cook them for different lengths of time, but, Niland notes, "you can braise a beef cheek in red wine, so why can't I do that with tuna? And why can't I serve it with mashed potatoes and a little onion and bacon and do a tuna cheek bourguignon?"

He recalls that a local river cut through his town, and his mum would take him there every so often.

"We would make a dough out of flour, water and Vegemite, then we'd put it on a hook and literally throw it in and see what we could catch," he remembers, with a laugh. "I was always amused that we could catch stuff with such primitive bait."

His mum would show him how to gut the fish ("You wouldn't pull any of the pin bones out, that was too much work") before dusting it with flour and cooking it in a pan, spraying it with canola oil.

"It was not a luxe fish set up that I grew up with, but it was an understanding that you catch it, then you cook it and eat it." That respect for the fish is built into the methods and techniques he advocates for now.

"To buy a sweaty piece of salmon coming out of a little packet, I think, is doing a further disservice to the fish," he explains. "You're not getting a great sense of what the flavour of the fish is, you're just getting the omega-3s you're craving."

Instead, he is interested in 'fish-to-gill' cooking, dry handling (not rinsing fish under water), dry ageing and curing (like you would meat), and not always reaching to place a fillet in a pan.

One of the major problems is a lack of confidence, says Niland, especially when so many of us "get convinced by TV to take a whole fish home and give it a crack for the first time," even though "to go home with a whole fish is super intimidating for a novice cook."

The idea is, The Whole Fish will break things down, and build up your seafood confidence and technique as you work your way through it.

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