A wideranging new book hopes to get us all hooked on seafood.
Asqually front is a bit of a concern for John Susman on a recent morning. As a renowned seafood provedore, and longstanding supplier to some of Australia’s most acclaimed eateries and top chefs, Susman knows that the rough weather will have a knock-on effect for restaurants and retailers when it comes to selling fish. And that brings Susman back to the boats, which would usually be out hauling in a catch at this time of day.
“We’re trying to work out who should go fishing and shouldn’t go fishing,” he says with a laugh. “As soon as we see a front like this come through it’s always fun.”
These days, Susman heads up an agency that helps fishermen connect with restaurateurs to get their fresh catch on the plates of hungry diners. Susman is positively hooked on the subject of fish and seafood, so much so that he admits he should have grown scales and a dorsal fin over the last three decades in the industry. That enthusiasm is illustrated in an encyclopaedic new book, Australian Fish & Seafood Cookbook.
The meticulously researched cookbook by Susman, Anthony Huckstep, Stephen Hodges and Sarah Swan, lavishly photographed by Ben Dearnley, reflects the authors’ desires to share their knowledge with a wider audience. It offers a step-by-step guide to various local species – everything from abalone to whiting – with detailed information about how to select, prepare and cook each one.
“There was, I felt, a fairly limited knowledge or understanding for seafood,” Susman says.
Despite its incredible flavour and nutritional benefits, fish doesn’t rate very highly when cooking at home. It’s not considered a staple, like chicken or beef, and many tend to ignore it.
There are 6,000 local marine species, but a very small number of those are eaten in commercial quantities. What’s more, we import almost 70 per cent of the seafood we do consume.
“You walk into a butcher’s and they’ve got four animals there. A fishmonger has hundreds”
New Zealand is, in fact, the largest supplier of fresh fish to Australia (its fishing grounds are more productive than ours), while our imports consist of mostly lower value boneless fish, calamari, octopus and farmed prawns.
Susman hopes to inspire a newfound appreciation of native species, seasonality and provenance for home cooks and professional chefs alike.
“You walk into a butcher’s and they’ve got four animals there,” he says. “A fishmonger has hundreds of different animals.The level of culinary adventure that you can have trawling through them can never be underestimated.”
Sustainable seafood is increasingly becoming the protein of choice in leading restaurants, while catching and handling methods have become more important than ever. Eco-conscious chefs are electing to feature bycatch species on their menus – fish caught while targeting other more familiar fare.
“I’m excited about catfish, moonfish and diamond-scale mullet,” says Ryan Squires, the inventive chef at Esquire and Esq in Brisbane.
“The mullet makes for a wonderful sashimi. It’s firm, crisp and has a phenomenally high fat content. It’s the wagyu of the ocean.”
Squires, who lives on the Gold Coast, starts his days with a text message at 2am. The alert comes from fishermen on a local boat, advising him when they’ll be arriving back with their daily haul. That exchange informs what he’ll be serving in his restaurants on the day.
“The simple philosophy we follow is that we buy off day boats,” he says. “We’ve never had a fish delivered directly to our doorstep – we source directly from reputable trawlers or fishermen.”
Like Susman, Squires wants to urge diners to explore beyond the species they might already be familiar with, and to sample types of fish that are more sustainable than tuna.
“Complacency is a big word in our restaurants at the moment; don’t get comfortable,” Squires says. “Sometimes I arrive at the back door of the restaurant in the middle of lunch with a fresh catch of something – but as if you wouldn’t want that fish.”
As any pescatarian will tell you, seafood is a healthy source of protein and essential fatty acids, and forms a vital part of a good diet.
Shane Landon of the Heart Foundation says eating the recommended weekly intake of fish offers a range of health benefits.
Landon, a dietician, says that two to three serves of fish a week are sufficient to reap the rewards.
“When I say a serve, I’m talking about, for an adult, 150g or thereabouts,” Landon says. “With two to three serves a week, you’ll get between 250-500mg of marine omega 3 fats on a daily basis.
“Those sources of fats have been consistently shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and lower rates of sudden cardiac death, stroke and heart failure as a result of higher fish intake.”
While Landon acknowledges that most Australians might need to work towards reaching the recommended intake, there are plenty of ways for home cooks to get caught up in Susman’s notion of a culinary adventure.
A trip to any fish market could make all the difference.
“If people are exposed to the culture of fresh fish, it’s a great experience,” Landon says.
“It’s an eye-opener to see the variety that’s available and how fortunate we are in Australia. Immerse yourself in that and then go home with some fresh fish and give it a try.”
Australian Fish & Seafood Cookbook by John Susman, Anthony Huckstep, Stephen Hodges and Sarah Swan from Murdoch books, $79.99, available from October 1.
Left: mirror dory, known for its sweet flavour and common in south-eastern Australia. Right (from top): Susman at lunch; sea urchin; and one of the book’s recipes, clams vinaigrette.