What We Learned About Fish From Spending An Afternoon With Josh Niland
It’s time to stop putting your fish in water, you’re killing the flavour
“How do you want your fish,” says a fishmonger dressed head to toe in black, to a customer ordering a kilo of Greenback Flounder from Coorong, SA. The customer is unsure of how he wants the fish but asks the fishmonger for advice after telling him what he plans to do with the fish. Immediately the fishmonger knows how to cut the flounder, wraps it in paper, and hands it off to the customer—but not before giving a tip or two on how to cook it.
“This is how we sell trust and instil confidence,” says Josh Niland who appeared from around the counter, donning his chef whites and a crisp white apron. We’re in Fish Butchery, Niland’s fish shop in Paddington, 20-metres down the road from his two-hatted seafood restaurant, Saint Peter. It’s a humble fish shop that feels luxurious when you walk in. Perhaps, it’s the cased sausages hanging in the front window, or the glass cabinet with one of everything they’re selling that day on display. You won’t find piles of fish or large blue trays of ice with fish lying on top. Everything is in controlled cabinets, including the oysters.
The shop is long and narrow with exposed brick walls, which Niland explains had a previous life as a hair salon. “I never wanted the shop to be uptight, but I did want it to be beautiful, a place you could walk in, order fish and chips, or a piece of fish to cook at home,” says Niland. In the middle of the room, there is a slab of white-marble serving as the backbone. This is where the fish is descaled with what Niland likes to call a ‘beartrap on a stick’. Although some fishmongers wield the beartrap, flinging scales up their arms, others use a knife, slicing the scales in one long strip, resembling snakeskin.
“The fish here will be used for sushi and sashimi,” Niland explains pointing at the fish being scaled by a knife. “What we’re trying to do here is to get between the scale and the fish, so we can control the texture of the fish and remove moisture from the fish.”
Removing moisture from the fish is something we don’t see often, but as Niland explains, it is the most important step in preparing the fish. “You know that fishy fish smell you get a waft of walking into a fish market or other fish shop,” Niland asks. I briefly pause to remember smelling nothing when I walked into Fish Butchery, except the faint smell of fries sizzling in the fryer. “Well that’s because moisture gets into the skin, and when that happens water rapidly breaks down into ammonia, resulting in a fishy smell.” It’s another reason Niland often gets lost when a customer asks for a fish that’s not too fishy.
As he explains, fishy fish are only “fishy” because of the way it’s stored and handled. Which explains why the fish scaled with the bear claw are immediately hung, away from moisture.
“When the scaler rips up the scale, it leaves an open pocket where the scale used to be. This pocket is quite deep and what usually happens is the fish is washed down then dipped in water. The water sits in that pocket, and after some time creates a fishy smell,” explains Niland.
This is the core of Niland’s philosophy. Removing moisture from the fish opens up a realm of opportunities that exists beyond the conventional method, according to Niland.
Our next step takes us to the cool room, where rows of gutted fish are hung up on silver hooks as butchers do to meat. They’re not swimming in buckets of ice or water, instead, they are dangling a safe distance from each other, careful not to touch one another. The coolroom is set to an optimal temperature, there is no fan blowing in the room, and only when the fish is ready to be served, then it will be unhooked and dealt with accordingly.
“Every step from the catching, killing, and preparing is important in achieving flavour,” says Niland who points out a row of garfish in a dry tray. “If you kill a fish properly, there shouldn’t be any lactic acid, which you can tell by the flesh—it looks cooked.”
So what’s the best way to humanely and effectively kill a fish? According to Niland, brain spike or bleeding the fish keeps the fish from flopping around, building up chemicals that can affect the flavour later on.
Bringing the attention back to the garfish, Niland explains there are moments when fish tastes better. This tray of Garfish is ready to go, but then Niland points to a hanging coral trout which has until Friday before it’s served on someone’s plate.
“This fish arrived today, it’s been scaled and gutted, but it won’t be ready until the end of the week. That’s not the case for all fish though, this tuna I would serve on day 8 or 9,” says Niland. “There’s a point where a fish’s fat is more prominent, which again comes back to removing as much moisture as we can and controlling the handling and environment from day one.”
Niland sources produce from fisherman around Australia and he takes only whatever he can get.
“I go to the airport to pick up fish once or twice a week from my sources, and I’ll visit the Sydney Fish Market daily to see what they have, but at my shop, I serve whatever I can get my hands on,” explains Niland. “Our customers ask for recommendations so we tell them, King George Whiting is excellent today, and we might offer tips on storing it at home, how to cook it, and if I have a recipe card, I’m more than happy to share.”
As Niland explains it, not everyone knows how to cook a certain fish, and he wants more people to choose an unfamiliar fish, something they haven’t had before or cooked before. The best way to do so is by helping his customers understand the product. “The bottom line is we want people to have a better experience with fish,” says Niland.
This stays true to his sustainable approach to fishing and his pioneering nose-to-tail eating method for fish. “The global standard is that half goes in the bin, which breaks down to about a 45% fillet yield,” says Niland who remains unaffected after 10-minutes of chatting in the cool room. “For every two fish, we only need one. I use about 95% of the fish.”
We finally leave the coolroom, to approach a small fridge, where fish are being dry-aged, but in a different control to the dry ageing fish in the coolroom. “It’s just another way to experiment with the flavour and natural method of prolonging shelf life,” says Niland.
“I’m always thinking, how can I articulate the flavour of fish differences between coral trout and snapper.”
Niland’s experimentation finds him continually exploring low-temperature storage, probing which fish works best for it, and noting when a fish reaches its sweet spot. More like a mad scientist, Niland is far from a conventional fishmonger, as he dives deep to push boundaries on how seafood is caught, shopped, and cooked whether at home or at Saint Peter.
One look at his book, The Whole Fish Cookbook, is enough to convince you of his outrageous, funny, and loopy suggestions on what to cook, including coaxing delicious dishes from fish eyeballs. liver and even fish blood.
If there is anything we can take away from spending an afternoon with Josh Niland, it would be his pioneering penchant for demystifying fish, his care and attention to preparing fish, and his sustainable seafood philosophy, that we hope catches on around the world.
Niland enjoys the complexity of fish, yet breaks it down for us so that we can enjoy and achieve a perfectly cooked piece of fish at home. His humble approach to seafood is nothing short of inspiring. He wants to change the world, but it’s not going to be easy and you get the sense he knows that, but he continues, one fish at a time, to change how we cook, eat, and look at fish.