• Josh Niland is working with the MSC to encourage people to eat fish more sustainably. (Madeleine Ryan, Papaya)Source: Madeleine Ryan, Papaya
Eating fin-to-tail is a movement that's been quietly growing for years and it's getting louder as more and more dive in.
Bron Maxabella

24 Mar 2020 - 2:29 PM  UPDATED 24 Mar 2020 - 3:24 PM

He's opened the country's first fish butchery, serves only fish at his Paddington restaurant Saint Peter, authored a book called The Whole Fish and has recently added his voice to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)'s fight for more sustainable seafood choices. It's fair to say that Josh Niland loves everything about fish.

"How we source and handle seafood now will have an impact on what’s available in Australia for generations to come," Niland says.

He is committed to using the entire fish in his cooking - even though he knows that fish eyeballs and intestines are likely to make a few quite squeamish.

"At the end of the day, fish is bloody expensive." - Josh Niland

Fish out of the bin

"At the end of the day, fish is bloody expensive," Niland told SBS Food. "We need to have these methods of cookery up our sleeves so we’re not putting fish in the bin, basically.”

When sustainability, waste and the impact of climate change on our oceans are such hot topics, Niland's commitment feels like one everyone should be making. Plus he makes it all seem so easy.

"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 said.

Leaping the squeamish hurdle

Of course, getting over the "ick-factor" and cooking the eyeballs are both big hurdles for many. 

"I think there’s a lack of knowledge surrounding how to cook, eat and utilise all the parts of a fish," says Niland's MSC co-supporter, Tasmanian chef and forager, Analiese Gregory. "It can seem daunting and difficult." 

Gregory recommends starting with more approachable parts of the fish. "I think, to begin with, things like grilled fish wings, collars and heads are gelatinous, delicious and perhaps easier to approach than a spleen or a liver!" she says.

Or take things slow and start with something extra-tame. Like fish stock.

Well stocked

Click here for this easy fish stock recipe.

Once you've enjoyed a whole fish meal like baked trout, grilled snapper or thieboudienne, save the head, frame and wings to make fish stock. It's as simple as throwing the lot in with some vegetables and herbs and simmering the lot for a couple of hours. You then gently strain and discard the bones - voila. Minimal fish contact, but an excellent introduction to fin-to-tail resourcefulness.

Crunch on through

Of course, the easiest way to consume the entire fish is to choose fish with edible bones. That way you can just munch your way through and feel very virtuous while you do so. Fish with edible bones (and heads, when you're ready), include sardines, anchovies, whitebait and smelt.

In Japan, fresh sardine bones are rolled in a little flour, then deep fried and served as 'fish crackers'. 

In Japan, fresh sardine bones are rolled in a little flour, then deep-fried and served as 'fish crackers'. They're a popular treat in sushi restaurants.

In Spain, whitebait and other small fish is deep-fried until crispy then served simply with salt and lemon and eaten as part of tapas. Italians enjoy baby cod in much the same way.

Or do as Niland does and use the spine of the fish as a skewer.

Prawns are also often eaten whole - in Vietnam keeping the prawn intact and frying the head, shell and legs bring a crispy texture to dishes. According to Science Daily, consuming a chemical called chitosan in prawn shells has even been found to lower cholesterol.

Japanese smelts (nanbanzuke)

The nanbanzuke or “southern barbarian-style” of marinating, actually originated with the Portuguese sailors that came to the south of Japan back in the 15th century. These sailors brought dishes like tempura and castella (Japanese sponge cake), and this nanbanzuke-style of cooking is reminiscent of the Portuguese escabeche that the sailors would have had on their long sea voyages to Japan. This recipe is meant to be served as part of a shared meal.

Deep-fried whitebait with cayenne pepper

Deep-fried whitebait is a crunchy, salty treat that’s been tantalising British tastebuds since it appeared on menus in 1612. The tiny fish are delicious when prepared and cooked simply, with just a little cayenne spice and lemon juice.

Salt and pepper tiger prawns

In Vietnam we fry the prawns with all the shell, head and legs adding a wonderful crispy texture to the finished dish. You could trim off the legs if you like but I urge you to give it a go. The salt, pepper and five spice seasoning works well with all seafood - squid is a good variation.

Sauce smother

If crunching into a tiny little fish feels like a step too far, you can always try hiding the fish bits in the sauce. Fish head curry is a classic Malaysian and Singaporean family favourite. Fish heads bring a real depth of flavour that the flesh just doesn't have, plus they contain a surprising amount of meat. Once you make a fish head curry, you'll be reluctant to let future fish heads go to waste.

Fish head curry

"I really enjoy cooking fish whole on the bone at home, such as Flathead or flounder," says Gregory. "Then I make a sauce like a café de Paris or a beurre noisette and miso base and pour it over. It’s a fun activity to sit there eating the fish cheeks and really getting into it."

Bobó de camarão (Brazilian prawn, cassava and rice)

Hailing from the Bahia region of northern Brazil, no celebration would be complete without this comforting dish of prawns, cassava, coconut and ghee. Food Safari Water

Parihuela (Peruvian seafood soup)

Fragrant, spicy and loaded with seafood, parihuela is Peru’s answer to bouillabaisse. Food Safari Water

Claypot fish

The earthy simplicity of cooking in a claypot has been a method used throughout the ages and is particularly popular in Vietnam. The clay not only adds a little moisture to help steam the food but it also imparts an earthy note. Food Safari Water

Dip into it

Another way to ease yourself into fin-to-tail philosophy is to use fish scraps to make dips, soups and sauces. Smoke a whole trout for the table, then scrape flesh from the bones and head to use in these trout dip or fattoush recipes.

You could even try making a version of XO sauce using leftover prawns, clams or fish in place of the dried shrimp and scallops. Experiment to come up with your own flavours, just don't leave your fish to go to waste.

Liaw Family's XO sauce.

Find this XO sauce recipe here.

Experiment to come up with your own flavours, just don't leave your fish to go to waste.

However you choose to go about your fin-to-tail experimenting, it's important to simply start. Next time you find yourself with 'leftovers' after making dinner, have a think about what you can create, not waste. Make it your mission to use the whole fish and your health and conscience will be rewarded.

Sustainable eating
Crab noodle soup

This elegant, restaurant-grade dish can be prepared in as little as 20 minutes. 

Deep-fried snapper with green mango salad

Combining classic Thai flavours of sweet, salty and sour, this mango salad makes for the perfect summer lunch. Food Safari Water 

Roast crayfish with truffle sauce crème

Truffle butter might seem like a fancy ingredient, but trust us, the aroma really lifts the flavours of shellfish and is completely worth it. Peter Kuruvita's Coastal Kitchen

Clams in XO sauce

The classic combination of clams with XO sauce gets a black truffle upgrade. 

Sardines, bread & parsley

A simple dish using fresh sardines served with a vibrant bread and parsley sauce.

Stir-fried pipis with black bean, chilli and olive oil

The new season Koroneki oil I use for this recipe tends to be quite peppery and spicy. Its flavours manage to both stand up to and complement the strong taste of the black beans and the heat from the chilli and ginger. The combination of these piquant ingredients delivers a bold flavoured dish, with the olive oil binding it all together.

Pickled octopus

When you’re catching proper large octopus like we did with the legendary Occy Rose, there’s way too much to eat in one go. This is a great way of being able to store some for later. The cooking time will vary depending on the size of your octopus tentacles, so use the tenderness of the tentacles as your guide. Serve as part of a mezze plate or toss through a potato salad.