Published on 19 August 2021
Chef Josh Niland has quickly come to be recognised as the sort of once-in-a-generation voice who can change the way the whole world thinks about an ingredient. Since the opening his restaurant, Saint Peter, in Sydney in 2016, and his Fish Butchery, one of Australia’s first sustainable fishmongers, which he opened in 2018, Niland has opened conversations around pushing the boundaries of how seafood can be cooked and how much of a fish can be eaten that have been heard around the world.
His first book, The Whole Fish Cookbook, was brought to market by Melbourne publisher Hardie Grant in 2019, won recognition internationally, and has since been translated into half a dozen languages. Nigella Lawson described Niland as “a genius”, Yotam Ottolenghi named the book as his cookbook of the year, while Jamie Oliver called it "a mind-blowing masterpiece from one of the most impressive chefs of a generation". Niland’s new book, Take One Fish, pulls the focus on 15 key species while expanding the first book’s no-waste philosophy, and is on shelves right now.
Here’s Niland’s take on how it came to be.
I wrote Take One Fish after my publisher, Jane Willson, asked me if I had another one in me soon after The Whole Fish Cookbook was released. We’d made more discoveries at Saint Peter and the Fish Butchery after the first book had gone to press, and there was plenty that I wanted to share, so the opportunity to do another book was something I approached quite happily. I punched out the whole thing on my phone, the same way I had with The Whole Fish; I enjoy typing on my phone a lot more than on a computer for some reason. The lockdown of 2020 had an impact on the direction and tone of the book, too. It went from being what I now consider to be quite preachy to being more about pleasure.
The pitch to the publisher was, "let's dial down and really showcase the opportunity that one single fish represents". Rather than only seeing a fish as something with a head and two fillets, let's expose the full scope of possibility that I see. Let’s enthusiastically and provocatively share that with the reader. Because without provocation, there cannot be change. Hardie Grant suggested that I focus on 15 species of fish to unpack, from XS to XL, and here we are.
The main thing I learned writing it was a lot about myself and what I personally liked to cook. I know it sounds corny, but it’s true. I wanted the book to represent my creative thinking along with the techniques that the team and I have developed over the past few years. I also felt I’d gained more of a global perspective – more than a billion people rely upon fish as their primary source of protein. The consumption of fish for this group of people is essential, and there are methods to use every single part of the fish. How can we translate these methods into food that has broad appeal?
How can I bring humour, nostalgia, flavour and textural comfort to the sundries of a fish? To look at fish as meat and learn just how many reference points can be inspired by meat butchery was incredibly fascinating.
If you cook one thing from this book, it should be tuna mince. And I'm not just talking about sashimi-grade yellowfin, but mack tuna, albacore, bonito and big-eye. These fish all have enormous potential if we think about them slightly differently. When you mince the tuna, you don’t need to focus so much on the 'primaries' of the fish – the fancy cuts. What this means is that a fish shop or market owner can fetch a premium for the centre cuts like a 'sirloin' or 'fillet' and then utilise the lateral swimming muscle, muscles that contain a significant amount of sinew, and cuts from around the heads and tail, into economical, accessible fish mince. Once this mince becomes a commonly available product, creatively, the sky is the limit. Think koftas, cheeseburgers, lasagne and mapo tofu.
I’m not suggesting that we start pillaging more tuna from the ocean in an effort to create a new mainstream product; this is a solution to an issue of waste. As a chef, it’s my responsibility to bring desirability to the produce I work with, be it the primary cuts or secondary. Would a butcher forego the monetary and ethical benefit of grinding the chuck and brisket of a cow into a high-quality beef mince?
But I'd also love it if you tried all the delicious fish-less condiments, marinades and pastries. These are obviously wonderful to be experienced and enjoyed with the fish in the book, but the recipes for sour-cream pastry, short pastry, laksa paste, tagine paste, baba ghanoush, Yorkshire puddings, vadouvan curry, jerk marinade and naan all have plenty of potential beyond the dishes they’re part of in the book.
If you're a relatively new cook, give the salt-baked snapper a try. This is one of the simplest cooking methods for fish, with the most impressive results. It has only five ingredients, and is a method that suits a number of other species, so it’s a good one to bank in your repertoire.
If you're looking to extend yourself a bit more, meanwhile, the red gurnard tikka is a dish well worth the effort. It’s quite striking, so it makes a good centrepiece at a dinner party, and doesn't hold back on flavour. To make the dish slightly simpler to prepare, you can ask your local fish shop or market to butterfly and bone the gurnard for you.
When I'm weighing up buying a cookbook or a book about food for myself, I look for unique opinions, creativity and full transparency. Dan Barber and Fergus Henderson are two exceptional chefs I deeply admire and am constantly reading about and learning from.
The books I refer to most often when I'm cooking are…Niki Segnit’s Flavour Thesaurus is a very worn favourite of mine; it offers so much scope and opportunity when it comes to flavour pairings.
When you've finished reading Take One Fish, I really hope the notion of seeing fish as an ever-available commodity is forgotten. I hope, seeing greater potential from one single fish, we can instead start to effect meaningful change.
Fish is so much more than two fillets held together by a head and a tail. Cooking and eating something that can bring you and your family this much joy is a privilege that we should value.
If reading this book inspires you to try mincing fish, marinating it, grilling it over fire, smoking it, eat it cold for breakfast the next day, or to gnaw on the bones, then I’ll be very happy.
Josh Niland’s Take One Fish ($55, Hardie Grant) is available now.
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