On shopping, surliness & sustainability

August 21, 2012

I have always been rather afraid of stir-frying fish.

I have visions of fish fillets falling apart and turning to soggy mush, making not so much a stirfry as a soupy mash. As I think I’ve discussed here before, my thoroughly inland childhood meant I came late to seafood and, unlike my beachy husband, I still lack a natural confidence in cooking much seafood.

This is one of the reasons I love Neil Perry’s recipes for cooking fish and seafood – his instructions are always so exact and clear, especially in Good Food, one of my essential books.  So when I saw Mr Perry’s stir fried blue eye in last weekend’s paper I determined to look again at stir fried fish.

The recipe is for blue eye trevalla, which, while recommended for its firmness of flesh and ability to stand up to robust flavours, the sustainable seafood gurus GoodFishBadFish put in the category ‘Think Twice’. “Stocks are currently fully fished, with localised depletions. Some bycatch concern,” they say.

However, given that so much of the other seafood we like to eat is firmly in the “Say No” category, I find myself thinking that everything’s relative, and so blue eye is not so bad after all. GoodFish folks suggest alternatives of mulloway or coral trout, neither of which my nearest fish shop stocks.

I know I should ask them about mulloway, and start talking about sustainability, and “building a relationship” for future reference. But I’m weirdly, ridiculously shy of such conversations. I don’t know why, exactly. But with things like this I’m reminded of Julian Barnes’ amusing piece on food shopping in his Pedant in the Kitchen, where the author admits that for him, as for most of us, the idea of “developing a relationship” with or “instructing” one’s butcher, fishmonger or candlestick maker is as realistic as “advising” one’s local policeman or garbage collector.

This is why the Pedant’s morale is rarely lifted by a recipe beginning “Instruct your butcher to…” or “Telephone your fishmonger in advance and ask…” Now I know some excellent butchers, fishmongers and fruit ‘n’ veggers, though I don’t think of any of them as “mine”. Equally, I sometimes encounter a needlessly surly butcher who, when you hesitantly propose what you might require, will seize something in a flurry of hands, offer it for a nanosecond’s inspection with a lip-curling “That do?”, and have it on the scales and off again before your eyes can refocus, while calling out a weight and price which could well be a touch speculative.

I can imagine the look of bafflement on my fish shop man’s face if I quizzed him on his sustainability credentials. I suspect it would resemble the response of the woman behind the counter at a terrible local store laughingly called a “deli”, when I asked her about the origins of one of her four slabs of unmarked, unlabelled cheese. “I dunno,” she said, crossly. I tried again, valiantly. Might she know what kind of cheese it was? She sighed, cast her eyes to the ceiling, and shot me a look of undisguised contempt as she said: “English”.

Sometimes I wonder if avoiding this kind of exchange  is part of the reason some people actually prefer supermarket shopping. (It’s also one of the reasons, apart from the amazing quality of the meat and the ethical aspects, I buy almost all our meat from Feather & Bone – they actually do like to talk to you, are happy to help, and are generally Lovely Humans.)

Anyhoo, back to fish!

I bought blue eye trevalla from my surly fish man, and with it made a bastardised version of Neil Perry’s recipe last night. I marinated the chunks of fish as per his recipe, but from there returned to the old faithful stir fry combo taught to me a thousand years ago by my friend Ricardo: red capsicum, lots of sliced garlic, 3cm batons of green onion, a couple of birdeye chillis, split lengthwise, and then half a bunch of basil leaves tossed in at the end. Add to this a goodly slosh of fish sauce (I tend to go for at least one tablespoon, sometimes more) and a good pinch of brown sugar.

Method wise, I began as Neil suggests:

1. Heat a wok with a little vegetable oil until just smoking, then add the fish pieces with the marinade, spreading these evenly around the wok.

2. “Cook undisturbed for 1 minute, allowing the fish to start to brown” – then I turned the chunks once until almost cooked, then removed them and set aside.

3. I then added the vegetables but not the basil to the wok and stirfried them for a few minutes (adding a little boiling water), then returned the fish, slooshed in the fish sauce and brown sugar and gently stirred to combine, still at high heat.

4. As I turned off the heat, I threw the basil leaves in, put the rice in one serving bowl and the fish in another. By this time the basil leaves had wilted just nicely.

It was excellent.

Do you stir-fry seafood much? any problems? And what about “your” butcher, fishmonger or baker? How do you begin the conversations I’m too chicken to have? I would really love your views.





  1. Hi Charlotte, the Trevalla looks incredibly tasty and any recipe by Neil Perry is a winner by me. Living in the local Five Dock area with a plethora of amazing deli’s, butchers and patisseries my problem is that there’s too many folk wanting to chat and talk. More likely if you ask a question you’ll get a lecture in cheese! At least it makes for tasty eating and a lot of happy locals 😉

  2. I’m so relieved to read this post – I had always baulked at the idea of “developing a relationship” with my fishmonger. The most daring I get is asking for a firm white fillet that would be good for roasting, and even then I feel lucky if the response doesn’t start with an eye-roll. Part of my reluctance also comes from my retail and hospitality background; I don’t want to waste people’s time, especially if there’s a line-up. If a customer had started asking me if our butter pats were sourced from sustainable farming communities or whether Brand X bike light had been manufactured in accordance to amnesty standards, I would *not* be thinking, “Hurray! An opportunity to have a long and convoluted discussion about product lines!”

    I also am slightly afraid of seafood, and have yet to master a prawn dish with Asian flavours of any kind.

    This is like Seafood Aversions Anonymous. (“Hello, Lia..”)

  3. I too have the fear of the fish. This has lead to both under- and over-cooking of hapless fishes & seafood. I think you just have to trust the recipe (and have someone experienced nearby to go “Yeah, that’s done”)

    That being said, I totally intend to try this.

    Oh! And someone else has read Pedant In The Kitchen!

  4. I laughed out loud at your disdainful deli lady. I can’t imagine having a conversation of this sort with my fishmonger. Con and I go back a long way. He gets my fish from a different (special) place to the ones displayed, so we have ‘developed a relationship’. He is ‘mine’. But at least I don’t call him ‘little man’. This is mostly because he is big and authoritative and I have difficulty asserting that I don’t want as much fish as he weighs up, let alone querying its origins.
    How excellent to get this off my chest. I shall attempt to do better!

  5. Well I thought I had a good relationship with my butcher until took in my (French) mother and she asked, innocently enough, why he was selling veal that wasn’t veal but yearling. Oh boy oh boy, will probably take me years to make up lost ground as he snarled about people who eat unborn foetuses and how we are much more humane here than in France.
    THEN as if that were not bad enough we picked up the brisket we’d pre-ordered from him and found he had not rolled it as we expected. So when we asked him to roll it he got out his humungous needle, and jabbed the air as if he’d like to stick my mother with it before rolling up the meat and stitching it, complaining all the while that it was rushed and not satisfactory when to us it was as neat as a tailored sleeve.
    Mon Dieu!

  6. Ouch. I don’t think I could ever buy meat and fish or cheese under these circumstances. My mother and grandmother both told me it was important to develop a relationship with your butcher and I always have. (Though I don’t tell the current one, who’s a bit of a dill, that I’m unfaithful and buy veal and soup bones from other sources.)
    As for fish, well, perhaps you have to do your own research on sustainability. But there’s no reason why you can’t ask where a fish came from and develop a friendly conversation about fish stocks from there.
    I was shopping at Prahran market on Saturday afternoon and my friend asked whether different fish was farmed or wild. No offense appeared to be taken. Perhaps we are spoilt in Melbourne.
    I first approached the difficult business of cooking fish in the late 1980s. When I entered the Lygon Street fish shop, I found that my long lost best friend from my teenage years was serving there and she shepherded me through the learning patch.

  7. But re stir frying fish. I have made up a stir fry dish but I always cook all the vegetables before adding the fish at the end. Perhaps I should put it in at the start and then set aside. I’m always afraid of over cooking the fish and my husband is afraid of my undercooking it.

  8. Stir-fried fish … It’s never crossed my mind. Like yourself, I’m not very experimental when it comes to cooking fish. But Neil’s recipes are usually ‘winner’ material, so I’m tempted to give this one a whirl. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  9. Thanks Charlotte for some good sense in approaching fish cooking and not drippy commentary about how wondrous the whole precarious business is. Truth is I have always run from any recipe that talks about cooking whole fish. And stir frying it would leave me equally weak at the knees.
    I do however love a fish chowder ( sorry for going all New England on you) and quick frying salmon steaks with lime juice is fab. Don’t have a personal fishmonger, actually am fine with supermarket fish.
    “My” butcher sold up after many years to go live on his property up country and within a few weeks his Brahman cow trampled him when he got between her and her calf, and broke many a bone. Retribution?

  10. There’s an interesting cultural divide showing up here and I’m just realising what it is. I was brought up in a market culture where the cook (in this instance, he really was our cook, sorry) bought food items at the market where it was expected that you’d engage in discussion with the vendors. It was unheard of not to. The butcher waited to be instructed what was wanted and how it was wanted; the vegetable and fruit stall ladies were always quick to recommend or poo poo each other’s wares and so on. The egg seller had a bucket of water ready so each egg could be plopped in to make sure it was sound – or not. And so on. There was no such thing as feeling or being hurried by the shopping rituals.
    This discussion has made me understand why I feel quite at home in Italian or French markets – even with pathetic language skills – because actually, the language of food shopping is universal. I guess that’s why it has never occurred to me that it’s weird to talk to the butcher and the fish monger here in my local strip about what I’m buying or thinking about buying. It’s part of the whole process of producing lunch or dinner and definitely part of the pleasure.
    If you’re behind me in the queue – I wish I could say “sorry” but I honestly couldn’t! Try it – talk to people – it makes the world go round.

  11. Thank you so very much for this article. I am not good at stir frying anything let alone scary fish! A pretty good cook with Italian (having had an Italian father) and French food, lots of comparing dishes throughout those countries over many years, but fish… well … Living as we have for many years just out of Glen Waverley on our vineyard, we find now that Glen Waverley has become the area of choice for Chinese people with lots of Vietnamese as well,
    and thankfully they are very particular with their fish. The fish shop I now patronise is just great as they will talk about the various species, must admit that I haven’t actually asked them how my purchases should be cooked. We also have lots of Asian greengrocers and grocers so I can always obtain any item in that line – lots of which I have never seen before. I went to the same butcher for many years and he was very interested in the cuts I was asking for which, back in the 60s and 70s were pretty well unheard of outside of France. He retired, and now have a super butcher in our area who, along with some of his siblings are Italian and who offer good advice and always ask me what I am going to do with certain things and whether or not it is a “no no”. Charlotte just love your articles.

    Caroline I loved your post and understand completely re your mother and veal!!

  12. When I asked ‘my’ fishmonger where the calamari had come from he said ‘the sea’. Smart arse.

  13. Being an inlander too, I had little experience with fresh fish. But I now LOVE cooking whole fish (I find it’s pretty hard to muck up/overcook/undercook) and I often bake in paper. So simple, and tasty. Am crap at stir fries and tend to avoid them as they make terrible leftovers

  14. Reemski, agree entirely about stir frying! I also cook fish in baking paper, but as my eyes are getting older, I need my glasses on to see the bones in a whole fish, unless it is a large type of course, don’t cook whole or have out at restaurants, but often order fish in a restaurant I trust.

  15. So, last weekend, I stir fried my fish first, put the pieces aside and then did the vegetables, before adding the fish at the end. But my fish pieces were a little overcooked so I think I’ll go back to my previous method. Do the vegetable stirfry first, then push the vegies to the edges and add the fish last in the middle before adding fish sauce and lime juice etc. The fish seems juicier this way.

  16. You have all given me a bit more spine for this discussion, which I shall attempt soon. You’re right Diana about at least trying it! And good luck with the fishy stirfries all – your method sounds foolproof Nici, will try.

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