• Josh Niland likes to work with the whole fish, from eye to scales to roe (Saint Peter Instagram)
Two Sydney chefs are plating up fish eyes, scales, sperm - and a lesson on sustainability.
By
Mariam Digges

27 Jun 2017 - 3:02 PM  UPDATED 13 Mar 2018 - 3:41 PM

Trendsetting is no longer the reserve of designers. Over the past decade, chefs have coined more buzz terms and movements than you could throw down a runway. Sustainable. Local. Raw food. Paddock-to-plate.

The nose-to-tail movement is far from fresh, but is arguably one of the hottest food trends of recent times. It refers to the respectful consumption of the whole beast and until now, referenced meat and poultry. But at Josh Niland’s Paddington 34-seater, Saint Peter, it’s seafood that’s getting the nose to tail treatment or – or rather – fin to fin. The Sydney fish whisperer honed his skills under Steve Hodges at Fish Face before venturing out on his own.

“I opened Saint Peter to showcase Australian seafood and Australian wine - anything that comes through the door is from Australia,” Niland tells SBS. “That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the fish out of New Zealand – some of the best fish in the world comes out of New Zealand at times, but we want to show off what comes out of here.”

Fish liver and parsley on toast, like this mirror dory version, is a Saint Peter favourite.

The menu is kept tight – three or four types of oysters, five entrees, five mains and a handful of locally supplied cheeses. Everything rotates fast, depending on what’s brought it. And forget about ordering beer-battered flathead and fries.

“I’d been cooking fish livers and parsley on toast since I was about 18 or 19,” Niland says. “Obviously, it takes a bit of time to build that rapport with the customer so that they can trust me and trust that a liver from a fish can be eaten.”

Fish eye chips ... tastes like something between an anchovy and an oyster. 

As it turns out, when it’s available, the fish liver and parsley toast is a sell out - and that’s just the beginning of the fish offal on offer; he sometimes prepares fish eye chips, blending the eyes into a paste that gets dehydrated and then fried until it puffs. Niland says it tastes like something between an anchovy and an oyster. He’s deep-fried mulloway scales to make a textural garnish, turned kingfish blood into black pudding and when it’s in season, milt (fish sperm) is on the menu. 

“It’s one of those words that doesn’t sit well with everybody: ‘sperm’. But like the liver and the roe, we’re very select about what we take from the fish – it has to be picture-perfect to use.”

After removing the milt from the fish, it’s stored in a kelp salt brine for two to three months to set (it starts as a dense jelly-like block). Within time, the milt starts to take on the texture of scallop meat. Niland likes to panfry it and pair with mushrooms, or plate it up with the fish it originally belonged to.

“Then it paints a bit of a story about, say, the Spanish mackerel and how we use every part of the fish. Because at the end of the day, fish is bloody expensive – we need to have these methods of cookery up our sleeves so we’re not putting fish in the bin, basically.”

At Sydney fine diner Sokyo, Chase Kojima also dishes up milt and fish eye, but admits that it’s more often to his team than to customers.

Sokyo’s Chase Kojima likes to serve milt and eyes the Japanese way.

“Usually, it is me and the kitchen staff that eat this but if there’s a diner in Sokyo that loves offal, we’re more than happy to serve it for them,” Kojima tells SBS.

“When the season is right, the sperm of certain fish species like snapper is beautiful. The season is so short, sometimes only for two weeks, but if it’s really high quality produce, I’ll serve it as sushi or planted in dashi. If we get a whole tuna, we’ll also barbecue the head and eat the eye gelatin, which is considered a delicacy in Japan.”

"Fish is bloody expensive – we need to have these methods of cookery up our sleeves so we’re not putting fish in the bin."

It might sound easy enough, but it’s far from the case. Behind the scenes of the slick, minimally furnished Saint Peter is a custom-built static coolroom that would be the envy of seafood chefs the world over. Cold static air circulates without fans, mimicking ice without water. The larger fish are hung on butcher’s hooks to dry without sweating, and the smaller ones are laid down in drawers.

“By hanging it and allowing cold air to pass around the fish, you’re allowing the fish to have a longer shelf life,” Niland explains. “We’ve seen incredible results – it’s a really great tool to have. With us buying such beautiful fish and having such great ways to store fish, we’re able to use the offal and come up with ways in a western sense to make them delicious and interesting.”

Niland says that while offal is tough to navigate and involves the meticulous break down of the fish (if you bust the gall bladder, bitter bile explodes all over the liver), he still hopes more home cooks start to embrace lesser-known, more sustainable species.

“The biggest thing that needs to get out to the general public is more methods of cookery. People know how to cook barra, snapper, salmon and john dory because that’s always been cooked on telly. If people knew how to cook, say, pink ling – which is half the price – I think pink ling would be the hottest new fish in town.”

Want inspiration? View our collection of delicious sustainable seafood recipes.

Lead image: Saint Peter's Instagram.


 

Seafood Sustainable Week is from 12-18 March, 2018. You can binge-watch the entire series of What's The Catch with Matthew Evans:


 

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