All very fishy - cooking with fish

Posted on Analysis May 2010 - by Tandoori Magazine
All very fishy - cooking with fish

Fish is one the most versatile, delicious and healthy of natural foods to be found anywhere in the world. Its consumption goes right back to when time began.

Yet, less than a decade or so ago, if you looked at Indian restaurant menus you’d be forgiven for thinking that the subcontinent just didn’t have a culture of eating fish. Not so, of course. India alone has a coastline stretching for over three thousand miles and a host of lakes, streams and rivers. The variety of fish available in those waters in immeasurable.

Indian restaurants have traditionally offered north Indian dishes on their menus, known primarily for its meat and poultry cooking, as opposed to cooking from Bengal or south India. Even if certain fish dishes have been adapted to this type of regional cooking, they have been very limited in range. In addition, the knowledge and understanding of the kinds of fish available in the UK also used to be rather limited.

All that has gradually changed. With Indian restaurants modernizing and chefs getting ever more experienced and receptive to the ingredients and produce around them, fish dishes have become some of the most interesting and flavoursome on the menu. And why wouldn’t they?

The UK rules over 335,000 sq miles of sea waters, which amounts to more than three times the country’s land area. The fish caught are as varied as anywhere around the globe. The most heavily fished and in fact the top money-making fish species include cod, sole, salmon, plaice, haddock, turbot, halibut and monkfish. Fish consumption also continues to rise in the UK, at a rate believed to be about 9% per year.

Chefs across Indian restaurants are finally taking advantage of this growth and are now able to tempt customers with some superbly executed fish dishes. Besides, it is hardly any wonder considering the many ways in which fish can be prepared - from tandoori-style to curry, biryanis to frying, baking to roasting, and of course grilling, poaching, steaming and even creating fish stock.

“India is a peninsula,” says Yogesh Datta, chef-patron of such renowned London restaurants as Painted Heron and Bangalore Express, “so it is covered on three sides with water and fish is a staple with many communities in India. Inland communities use freshwater fish. Having said that, due to religious reasons a large chunk of the population is vegetarian, fish isn’t eaten widely. Until recently and because of lack of infrastructure and the highly perishable nature of fish, there has been little movement in the availability of fish from one part of the country to another. So fish available in India has been mostly locally sourced and fresh. Also families tend to stick to traditional recipes, cooking the same fish in the same way for generations. Hotels and restaurants in India are slightly different as a wider range of fish is available at a premium price.

There is much more scope to use different varieties of fish in the UK for two simple reasons: there is a market for it as the customer here is more adventurous and more used to eating a wider variety of fish and seafood, and secondly, more variety is readily available and easy to procure.”

Chef-patron Karim Sheikh of the Indian Lounge in Manchester concurs. He states, “Not too many years ago, the nearest Indian restaurants could muster to fish was either tilapia or pomfret, whilst other seafood items primarily featured prawn dishes. There is nothing wrong with those items at all and Indian restaurants should continue to serve them on their menus. But what’s changed is the perception of fish by intelligent and gifted chefs and the fact that fish is available in such abundance.
You can experiment with fish and just go by trial and error. Yes, fish is light and very delicate, but unless you widen your horizons with it, apply different spices and cooking methods, you are not going to know anything about flavour, nor your skills as a good chef. Be bold and utilize fish as much as possible.”

So aside from the much used tandoori salmon and monkfish, what kind of fish are suitable for Indian cooking?” At Painted Heron,” notes Datta, “we pride ourselves on our fish dishes on the menu. We are bold, different and very adventurous with fish at this restaurant. My team and I would cook with any seasonal fish that you would find in any continental or Japanese, Chinese restaurant. We have worked with raw oysters to black cod to turbot and monkfish to name a few.

“To balance the menu, I have to be very careful with the number of fish dishes I incorporate in our menus because obviously, customers do not come to Indian restaurants specifically to eat fish! Since we print our own menus in house, I have the luxury of buying fresh fish from the day boats and putting them straight on our menus and clientele’s plates. My approach to Bangalore Express is totally different. Here we just have a few basic fish dishes which are easy to replicate and produce.”


Datta says that as his personal favourite fish, haddock wins because it’s “a flaky white fish which takes on the spices really well. It can disintegrate quickly though if not cooked properly. Salmon takes the tandoori spices well while monkfish cooks well with curries and is a firm fish.”

With over 75% of the world’s fish stocks being overexploited, it is only sensible that sustainability be foremost in our minds. So it’s always worth talking to your fish supplier about what issues are at stake and what fish are best to use. Avoid using fish whose stocks are very low. Keeping this in mind and ensuring that you can be confident about tackling fish as something worth having on your menu, Datta gives the following advice:

“Don’t just buy frozen subcontinental fish. Speak to your local fishmonger and experiment with local fresh fish. Look at the menus of contemporary non-Indian restaurants and see what fish they are using and how. Try cooking them your way.

Poaching, steaming and pan frying are my recommended methods of cooking fish. If cooking in a curry put fish in at the very end of the cooking process. Make fish stock to flavour your curries. Carom seeds, fresh dill, lemon, garlic, green chilli paste and pureed mint and basil go well with fish.”


Examples of fish dishes throughout the UK

Tandoori Macchi
Tandoor-grilled monkfish tail with sweet and sour green nilgiri korma sauce

Machli chat / Tuna salad
Seared yellow fin tuna, crusted with mild spices, coriander and fennel seeds crushed jersey royals, green beans, coriander cress lime oil

Rasoi Vineet Bhatia
Grilled Seabass
Coconut and roasted cashew nut kichdi, spiced tomato sauce, purple potato chips and chenna chutney

Babur Brasserie
Pan-seared Hake
Served with roasted aubergine and red onion salsa

Rasa Samudra
Varutharacha Meen Curry
Tali Macchi
Pan-fried fillet of sea bass with Asparagus and raw mango on a sauce of tomato with mustard, curry leaves and coconut

Market Fish Curry
Malvani spices, coconut

Macher Jhol
Fillet of bream marinated in chilli, turmeric simmered in a garlic and coriander Bengal fish broth with new potatoes
Nellore Chepala Pulusu
Red snapper simmered in tomato and tamarind sauce tempered with mustard seed, methi seed, cumin and saunf

Saffron Blue
Nilgiri Machli
Halibut with garlic green chillies, green herbs and poppy paste

Britannia Spice
Himalaya Rui Khumbhi
Spicy trout served with fried mushrooms, tomatoes, green chillies and fresh herbs, accompanied with a mild sauce

Udit Sarkhel - chef/patron Mango & Silk
Fish is something which is very delicate and requires care and attention when it’s being cooked. Ideally, it should only be cooked when the customer’s order is in. At Mango & Silk, I use a combination of local fish, because I find that Billingsgate Market sells excellent fresh fish, and fish which I import from India. I could put fresh trout on the menu which has been lightly spiced and cooked in the tandoor. I may also have a cod fillet which has been stuffed, pan-fried and then finished off in the oven.
For curries, I may have a spicy fish curry, full of lovely south Indian flavours. Or I could even serve a mild Bengali fish curry, made with fresh coconut. In total, I will usually have up to five fish dishes at any given time on my menu.
Generally, the criteria I apply to the type of fish I will use depends entirely on the price. There is no point in selling fish at a break-even price. Sole is a fantastic fish to have on the menu, but if the average price is £9.95, it would be impossible to put it on the menu because I would have to charge in the region of £18 to £19 for the dish and that would just put it beyond the price bracket of what my customers would be able to afford. I tend to sell most of my fish dishes as starters. That way customers can familiarize themselves with how the fish tastes and then they always have the option of having the item as a main course too.
The taste of the fish itself comes from two different elements - the flesh and the skin. Fish without scales tends to be sweeter whereas oily fish tends to be stronger in taste. I balance my spicing of the fish accordingly. One can’t put a very delicate fish in the tandoor to cook because it can easily break and fall off. But a fish like salmon or monkfish is ideal. In a curry, a good method is to sear the fish first and then add it to the sauce.
Fish in a curry sauce should be boneless. Nowadays, sustainability has become very important and even customers understand what the issues are. I’m conscious of the fact that one shouldn’t use fish whose stocks have depleted. Those points aside, I would advise that chefs use halibut, monkfish, cod, trout, John Dory and sole.

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