With the nose to tail movement in full swing, it’s time to start considering how Australian restaurants can take nose to scale to the next level. Hospitality spoke to Josh Niland and Peter Gilmore about the ins and outs of working with fish liver, roe, milt and swim bladder. By Madeline Woolway.

Fish offal might be unfamiliar to many, but it’s a mainstay in many Asian cuisines. Fish maw, or swim bladder, is a well-established delicacy in China, with the balloons sought after for soup. In Japan, shirako – the milt or fish sperm – collected from cod, salmon and even fugu is a delicacy, while kurusumi, the cured roe of mullet is similar to the European bottarga.

While bottarga is a well-known cultural export of Italy, it’s also produced in Turkey, Lebanon and Senegal. In Iceland cod liver is served alongside its roe, while the product can be found canned throughout much of Scandinavia.

COBIA-ROE-1.jpgPacific Reef North Queensland Cobia roe. Image: Fishtales. 

Fish offal, in one form or another, is not an oddity for much of the world.

In Australia though, it’s yet to become a prominent fixture on menus. Despite the growing trend towards nose-to-tail cooking of proteins including beef and pork, and concerns about sustainability in the seafood industry, the nose-to-scale movement has yet to make waves, at least when it comes to ‘hardcore’ offal.

Josh Niland, owner and chef of Saint Peter, which will open on Oxford Street on Sunday 4 September, is keen to change this. When it comes to cooking with the whole fish, Niland separates the cheeks and wings, head and eyes, which he sees as fish meat, from the hardcore offal, like liver, milt and roe.

josh-niland.jpgJosh Niland will open Australian fish eatery, Saint Peter, on 4 September. Image: Josh Niland.

Roe and milt and liver…

“Fish restaurants tend to buy a lot of whole fish and get a whole range of different species. One of the most prominent is flathead,” said Niland, who’s previously worked at Caf Nice and Fish Face.

“That’s where it all started: I was breaking down lots and lots of flathead. There was so much roe and milt kicking around, I started playing with it. We salted some roe to make bottarga. Then we tried to cook the roe from raw. It looks like a sausage, so by pan-frying it you end up with a roe sausage, which was really interesting. We had a few different outcomes from that.

“With the milt, first I tried tempura, which was really interesting because it’s naturally quite creamy. Then I put one into soy with kombu and bonito for approximately six months; the soy acts as a preservative. It developed a really dark, black ring around the outside and was really white in the middle. When we cooked it, it had a similar taste to veal sweetbread, so meaty and quite firm.

“From there it was just about knowing what that kind of offal looked like, and using that knowledge when cutting into other fish.”

fish-offal-5-1.jpgA 1.2kg Hapuka milt preserved in soy for six months. Image: Josh Niland.

From the humble flathead

So what about other species? Does the offal of different fish have different tastes and textures?

“Very much so,” said Niland. “If, for example, you take the offal out of a wild king fish, it has a natural acidity to it, like the flesh does. Acidity isn’t normally a nice word to use with fish, but once it’s cooked, kingfish tastes like it’s had lemon juice squeezed on it. That flavour carries through to the offal.”

Unsurprisingly, a lot of offal characteristics can be linked to the fish it came from.

“John Dory liver is really rich and buttery; it’s quite different to the fish. But when you eat it there is a characteristic of John Dory, so if you’ve eaten enough John Dory then you’ll understand that it’s a John Dory liver and not a Bass Groper liver,” Niland said.

While the flavour characteristics might carry over, this doesn’t mean any fish will produce offal diners will want to eat.

“We got given some Gemfish by a fisherman a couple of years ago; it was so fresh it was still in rigour. But as soon as we cut into it you could see the majority of the offal was blood tarnished. We soaked it in salt water to purge the blood a bit. It did get rid of some of it, but you could still taste the blood, that iron rich taste, which just doesn’t do it for a lot of people,” said Niland.

“The same goes for Spanish mackerels and oiler fish like that. Even tuna as well, all of their offal are quite blood rich.”

John Susman, director of Fishtales agrees that it takes time to learn the ins and outs of cooking with fish offal.

“Chefs looking to explore the opportunity to use fish offal need to do a bit of investigation to understand which ones will be useful and which ones won’t,” said Susman. “Roe can be absolutely sensational or pretty ordinary. Similarly the liver can be quite bitter.

“But [investigation] should be encouraged; you can’t bang on about seafood sustainability, without actually working nose-to-scale.”

COBIA-LIVER.jpgPacific Reef North Queensland Cobia liver. Image: Fishtales 

Avoiding off guts

Knowing what fish to work with is key and so is knowing what individual pieces of offal to use.

“If you push your finger into the liver and it deflates under your finger then it’s going to be horrible. Likewise, if it has lots of blood bruising and looks bashed around,” said Niland.

“You want it to be really firm and have a pale appearance. But you need to cut the liver out and inspect the whole piece before you can really know, because the back of the liver sits up against the gut of the fish; if the gut of the fish is blown and the liver has been sitting on it then you’ll see deterioration from the stomach acid. And with the gall bladder, if that pops you’ll see a battery acid green all over the liver, which you could trim off, but I prefer not to use it.

“It’s enough of challenge to get people to order something like fish liver when it’s amazing. If there are any imperfections I do away with it, it has to be pretty much perfect straight out of the cavity.

“You don’t want to give someone a bad experience because you’re trying to win them over.”

John-Dory-Liver-Grilled-over-iron-bark.PNGJohn Dory Liver grilled over iron bark. Image: Josh Niland. 

Exploring the final frontier

Winning diners over will be made an easier task if chefs pay careful attention to the choice of species and preparation of the offal.

“With the liver in particular, all you need to do is pan fry it like a duck or chicken liver so it’s a bit golden and crispy around the outside, season it with plenty of coarse sea salt, pepper and lemon. Then just add some parsley and serve it on toast – people will love it,” said Niland. “It’s a very Western oriented dish, customised for our palates.

“I’ve never had someone come to me disappointed or who thought it was disgusting. Everyone who’s eaten it has been interested in it and thought it was amazing.”

While there are simple preparation options, some processes, like making bottarga, are more complex and require a significant time investment.

“We got a swim bladder out of a 15 kilogram wild mulloway at Fish Face a few years back. We slow cooked half of it all day until it was almost like a beef tendon or cooked tripe, then we cut it really thin, mixed it into a garnish, and put it in a broth with globe artichoke that sat underneath the wild mulloway. The texture was quite interesting. With the other half we followed the same process but instead of cutting it up we dehydrated it and then deep fried it, which results in something like pork crackling.”

There have also been some less successful experiments, but Niland argues trial and error shouldn’t deter chefs from working with ingredients less familiar to them.

“I’ve tried a John Dory liver pate,” said Niland. “It ended up quite grainy, it’s almost too brutal. Chicken liver has a density to it, so when you whip it up and add the egg you get that really viscous, creamy, beautiful smooth puree. Whereas, the John Dory liver gets this grainy nature, it looks like it’s going to split. But I need to play with it more – if I’m going to put my hand up and say I’m the fish guy I need to have solutions.”

When it comes to more challenging uses of offal, at least for Western palates, the story is a significant part of convincing diners to take the leap.

“At Fish Face you build up a big following of fish diehards and they trust what you do,” said Niland. “The challenge for me was at Caf Nice, but once the waiters got the idea of what I was trying to do and they saw the great lengths we were going to, they had a story to tell and it was a little bit easier to explain to customers. Then it got going.”

Susman agrees the popularity of offal dishes will vary from venue to venue.

“Depending on the restaurant it might be something other than the headline act. To guide consumers down the path use it as a seasoning. So have it as an ingredient, rather than a core ingredient,” he said.

“The art of the sell needs to be considered and front-of-house needs to be informed.”

fish-offal-4.jpgFillet, liver and roe. Image: Saint Peter.  

Ocean to kitchen

Beyond getting diners to choose offal over more familiar fillets, the number one challenge is getting it from the ocean to the kitchen.

“It is difficult to purchase. When I started putting photos of fish offal on Instagram, people started calling my suppliers asking if they could get five kilograms of John Dory liver. They didn’t realise I cut it all out myself and that it’s a lucky dip, basically. That’s the tricky part ­– you can’t really commit to it, you have to be okay saying ‘it’ll be on the menu, when it’s on the menu’,” said Niland.

“At Saint Peter it might not feature on every single menu because maybe I won’t have it. But people can be assured when it is on the menu it’ll be fantastic quality.”

Ruby-snapper-liver-and-parsley-1.PNGRuby snapper liver and parsley on toast. Image: Josh Niland. 

… And Maw

Peter Gilmore told Hospitality how a Chinese delicacy ended up on Quay’s menu, the joys of working with fish offal and the challenges.

“It was coincidental. I was talking to Wayne Hulme from Joto seafood about offal in general and he mentioned a client in Chinatown who used to buy all the barramundi swim bladders. I’d known of swim bladders, or maw, as a traditional Chinese ingredient, so I decided to get some of the balloons in. When they arrived we did some tests and worked out how we wanted to use them. In China they use them in soups, and people love it, it’s a delicacy,” said Gilmore.

“What we do is a bit of process. We take the maw, clean it up, and remove all of the sinew and fat away from the actual membrane. We steam the membrane for 24 hours, so it takes a fair bit of cooking, then we dehydrate them, and fry them until they puff up – they become almost like a fish crackling.

“The fish maw has quite a neutral flavour, it’s all about the texture – they’re really crisp, not unlike a prawn cracker in some respects, but natural.

“So we use it as the textural element in our uni dish, which is koshihikari rice cooked in a sea urchin concentrate butter, poached seafood, salt cured egg yolk, topped with maw and finished with an umami broth at the table. The maw becomes the crisp counterpoint to the soft lushness of the rice and uni.

“It’s probably my favourite dish on the menu at the moment and it’s been popular.”

With Australian diners starting to understand and appreciate the likes of fish maw, the challenge comes in acquiring the right product.

“We take the swim bladder from the barramundi. It’s not easy to get your hands on, there’s not that much of it available – a lot of swim bladders go to China – through Joto I arranged for Wayne to supply me a certain amount each week,” Gilmore said.

“Without a doubt, sourcing is the number one challenge. Especially because when it comes to fish offal it has to be 100 percent fresh. You don’t want to eat fish liver or milt unless they’re in incredibly pristine condition, and they deteriorate very quickly.

“The maw is reasonably sustainable because of the size of barramundi fishery, but there’s only one swim bladder in every fish and really only the large fish, like the barramundi, are worth putting the effort into. I rely on my fish monger and the arrangement I have with him to secure that product. They would have to process, maybe, 1000 kilograms of barramundi to get me enough maw to use for the week. So it’s not something that’s going to be generally available in the market place, we can’t expect to see it all over fish and chip shop menus.”

FoodQuayUniKoshihikariRice-0141.jpgUni, koshihikari rice, salted yolk, fish maw, sweet prawns, umami broth at Quay. 

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