Fish butcher and chef Josh Niland is hoping to revolutionise how we treat, cook and eat fish. Ella Walker finds out about his latest undertaking.
Chef Josh Niland can be brilliantly blunt. “If you write a vanilla cookbook that just puts another fillet on top of another vegetable, I think I’ll go crazy,” he says over Zoom from Sydney, Australia. “It’s so boring, the way we continue to see fish.”
The restaurateur and fish butcher is doggedly trying to revolutionise the fish business, has developed a whole new fin-to-gill ethos to keep us eating fish in a sustainable way – one that doesn’t decimate the oceanic ecosystem – and isn’t afraid to make statements like: “It’s no longer acceptable to be serving AUS$12 (£7) fish and chips at a local fish and chipper.”
He set out his stall in his hugely successful debut, The Whole Fish Cookbook, for which Niland won two prestigious James Beard Awards and sold a whopping 100,000 copies. In it, he outlined fish butchery as an opportunity to make the most of every fish we buy, cook and eat. Sydney is back in lockdown when we speak, so Niland’s restaurant, Saint Peter, has had to quickly re-pivot to at home dining (again), but he’s found that the hike in home cooking has ramped up wider interest in fish butchery.
“For a lot of people using a fish shop, there’s never really much vocabulary beyond, ‘I’ll have that one’, or, ‘What would you want to eat?'” says New South Wales-born Niland, but encouragingly he’s had people increasingly “asking us to do certain tasks for them, which is what I’ve always had the great desire of fish butchery being; a service in line with meat butchery.”
Now his new cookbook, Take One Fish, demonstrates the benefits of fish butchery for home cooks, and for seeing every fish as more than its fillets. He considers the potential of 15 diverse fish species and looks at the maths: “If I can generate the yield of two fish from one single fish, that means one less fish gets taken out of the water.”
Niland calls the book “an indirect message of sustainability and making better decisions” – done in a way that’s as “provocative and humorous” as possible, hence the witty, graphic photography, bold tone and galvanising recipes.
It’s a step on from The Whole Fish Cookbook, which Niland admits is “quite exhaustive”, while recipes for fish offal and charcuterie were a little daunting. “Every page is quite a bomb,” says Niland wryly. With Take One Fish, he hopes to “offer tangible solutions for a protein” that is quite difficult to a lot of people.
There’s a big, crumbed swordfish cutlet “that wouldn’t be out of place on a pub menu anywhere in the UK”, and tuna mince made using the less desirable cuts, beyond the loin. “What’s happening to the rest of that fish? What’s happening to that big heavy red muscle that sits on the side, which people usually refer to as the bloodline? What’s happening to that really sinewy piece of chain that sits on the other side of the fish?” says Niland, mildly outraged. “To me, coming up with a solution in the form of a tuna mince was really exciting and very obvious.
“All of a sudden we’ve got lasagne, koftas, mapo tofu,” he adds. “It’s a wonderful way to introduce children experiencing fish for the first time.”
He reckons the tuna chapter in particular will really resonate and “bring more comfort to the idea of cooking fish”. It’s once we find that “deep comfort” and separate fish from ideas of icky-ness and smelliness and accept it into our routine like we do meat, that things will begin to change, he believes.
And change is absolutely necessary. “Every month that goes by, it becomes more and more of an issue,” says Niland, of the environmental crisis and the fish industry’s place within it. From a culinary perspective, he says “the message I’m trying to project is, where we live in a privileged country, like Australia, the UK, and the US, where we have the privilege of choice, where we can make decisions around the food we want to eat, then we need to be making better decisions.”
Over a billion people rely on fish and seafood as their main source of protein, and so some solutions, like what’s offered by Netflix documentary Seaspiracy – don’t eat fish – “really isn’t on the table for a lot of parts of the world”.
Niland’s fish butchery tack shifts the conversation and uses every aspect of fish in a way that does attract Western audiences, who likely “wouldn’t sit down to a bowl of eyeballs nor fish sperm”. For example, his decadent custard tart with sardine garum caramel. “You’ve got to keep pushing buttons, otherwise nobody pays attention,” says Niland with a grin. And once he explains that he’s drawing on Thai cooking, where fish sauce is regularly used to offset bitterness of caramel, the tart doesn’t sound remotely outlandish. “I try to join the dots and thread the needle to help people understand how I got to that outcome,” says Niland. “But ultimately, I just want to prod and poke people.”
He highlights the genius and determination of chef and restaurateur Fergus Henderson, a pioneer of the modern-day nose-to-tail movement, who in 25 years has popularised beef cheeks, oxtail and pigs’ ears, often over the primary cuts of the animals they’re from. Niland is determined to do the same for fish. “I feel that I’m at the beginning of a journey that I feel is going to take a very long time,” he admits, not naive about the task ahead. “But [it’s a conversation] I feel is extremely necessary, if we’re going to see about doing any kind of real change that can help the oceans.”
He says “archaic ideas” that fish has a shelf life of three to four days, that the only way to clean it is by washing it under a tap, or that only the fillet is desirable, “need immediate attention”. And, Niland adds without ego, “the only attention it’s being given right now in the world is my two books.”
So, if you want to keep eating fish and “work with this extremely precious product that we have on this planet”, you know what to do.
Take One Fish: The New School Of Scale-to-Tail Cooking And Eating by Josh Niland is published by Hardie Grant, priced £26. Photography by Rob Palmer. Available now.