There are pioneering chefs, and then there is Josh Niland.
Niland is credited with driving the “fin to scale” – or “scale to tail” – movement, which is focused on using the whole fish and not just fillets.
Niland and wife Julie Niland run four acclaimed seafood venues in Sydney: the fine diner that started it all, Paddington’s Saint Peter; fishmonger The Fish Butchery; elevated fish‘n’chipper Charcoal Fish; and Petermen, the à la carte restaurant where Niland’s “fin-to-scale” mission remains but is more accessible than its set-menu-only older sibling. He’s also about to open his first international restaurant in Singapore.
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Between opening restaurants and planning new ones, Niland has also written and released his third cookbook, Fish Butchery. (This follows earlier cookbooks Take One Fish and The Whole Fish Cookbook.)
On a new episode of Broadsheet’s podcast (Broadsheet Melbourne: Around Town and Broadsheet Sydney: Around Town) we spoke to Niland about what drove him to open Saint Peter in the first place, how he turns “compromised and aesthetically challenging” parts of the fish into in-demand dishes, and the world-renowned chefs he worked with to bring his third book to life.
He also discussed why we need to rethink the idea of “fresh” as best when it comes to fish. Most of us associate freshness – and therefore increased quality and taste – with how recently the seafood was caught. The more recently it was caught, the fresher it is, therefore the better it is, common thinking goes. For Niland this isn’t necessarily true: if we rethink that concept, business owners can reduce waste, use more of the fish and discover that some fish tastes better after a few weeks (if you know how to handle it).
Here’s what we learnt from Niland about how to get the best out of our fish.
Washing fish doesn’t keep it fresh; it actually speeds up the degradation
When a fish is washed, the cells within its membrane also fill with fresh water, rupturing them. Meanwhile, that fresh water stays inside the fish’s flesh, causing rapid degradation.
“This repetitious washing to keep [the fish] in a state of opulent freshness and glossiness is the most backwards, ridiculous system that’s spoiling fish within the space of three to four, maybe five days,” says Niland.
After a fish is caught, best practice is for the fisher to place it in an ice slurry. This removes lactic acid build-up in the fish, which, if left too long, spoils it quickly. Many fishmongers will subsequently and repeatedly wash their fish, but Niland says dry handling is the way to go.
“Washing [it] speeds up a compound within a fish to change into ammonia – what we associate with being called fishy fish,” Niland explains. “When you’ve got fishy fish, the only way that you mitigate that is through the use of acidity [which] usually comes in the form of half a lemon that sits on your plate or tartare sauce that goes with your fish’n’chips.”
He adds, “We’ve been fed a story of enjoying your fish with a lemon butter sauce, and that’s all because the culinary repertoire has built these dishes for the fact that eventually they’re going to fall off the cliff and we need some polishing mechanisms to get the smell away from our nose so we can get it to our mouth. I think that’s a broken logic and it limits the opportunities of flavours we can pair with fish.”
The preservation of fish all comes down to the way it's treated
Niland hangs each fish from the tail to ensure it doesn’t touch other fish, or sit in a tray in its own perspiration, which creates moisture.
“The more moisture that’s present, the more odour that’s generated,” he says. “It’s like if you took a hose to a cellar where some prosciuttos were hanging and you decided to give it a quick spritz. A day later it’s all going to be pretty miserable.”
A fish can last three or four weeks after it’s been caught when treated correctly, and taste not only fresh, but better
Niland says it's possible to make fish more flavourful over time. “Within that period of time, all the glutamates in that fish start to become active, and then it starts to become more savoury and more delicious. You get guests saying to you ‘wow, this is the freshest fish I’ve ever had’, and meanwhile it’s 15 days old.”
He adds that it's also a business decision. “If you know as a small business owner that you’ve purchased something that is extremely expensive and you need to maximise the opportunity of the whole fish, and [you] know that you’ve got three weeks to do that, then of course that’s really important.”
However, some species are best served soon after capture
The aforementioned shelf life doesn’t apply to all species. Snapper, King George whiting, rock flathead and flounder are all species Niland highlights as being “best enjoyed, and at its best moments, after you get it” and should be served to customers between day one and four from capture.
Fish is freshest when eaten straight out of the water, but not for the reasons you might think
“It’s because it didn’t go and get washed and thrown around in a barrel for a week in a box, bumped into with ice melting over the top of it … it’s the purest form of what the product is,” says Niland.
Listen to this episode of Broadsheet Sydney: Around Town with Josh Niland now.