Spices will help you learn to love fish

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There’s one thing I’ve really noticed lately, and it’s caught me by surprise – nearly all of my friends who are in the 25-35 category either don’t like to eat fish and most don’t know how to cook it.

I suppose it really shouldn’t take me by surprise, because until 5 years ago I was exactly the same. Cooking fish for me was putting one of those crumbed fish fillets in the oven and smothering it with mayonnaise. And I’m guessing there are plenty of others out there who also don’t like to eat fish or know how to cook it, so today I’m going to give you a few tips to get you started.

But what if I don’t like fish?

Have you actually tried a piece of fresh white fish, grilled lightly and eaten straight off a hot grill? Because if your concept of fish was like my (greasy crumbed fillets cooked in the oven) or you think fish fingers are really fish, then of course you won’t like eating fish because you’re not really eating real fish.

Real fish, cooked well, from Hunky Dory restaurant Moonee Ponds, Melbourne

Real fish should smell of the sea, but not have that ‘fishy’ smell. Now, I know every website or cookbook gives you that definition, so what does it really mean? I was stumped for ages as well but I’ve since found it means that when you have fresh fish you can only smell the fish smell when you’re up close to it, and for non-fresh fish you can easily smell the fish from several meters away.

Therefore, if you’ve been eating fish from a cardboard box or can smell the fish from miles away, you’re not doing yourself any favours. If you don’t like fish for these reasons, try to get a fresh piece of fish yourself and cook it well so that you’re starting from the right base.

How do you even cook fish?

Part of the problem I found when I started eating fish was that a lot of restaurants (and me) tended to cook the fish for too long so it because dry and tasteless. It wasn’t a good thing and it took me ages to realise that fish wasn’t really supposed to be eaten this way either. I’ve since learnt that fish doesn’t really take all that long to cook, so you don’t need to hike up the heat as high as possible and let it become very, very dry and unappetising.

The trick is to cook your fish for twice as long on the first side (or skin side) and then cook it quickly on the other side. In long white fish fillets that are full of moisture this means you only need about 5 minutes on the first side and 2-3 on the second side because this type of fish is thin and therefore fast cooking. An example of this would be when you cook basa or gem fish fillets.

Firmer white fish, like barramundi or marlin take longer to cook because they are thicker. I cook mine for about 15 minutes maximum, with 10 mins on the skin side and 5 minutes on the other side, but this does depend on the thickness of the fish you bought. Red fish, such as salmon and trout, take longer to cook because these are usually sliced thickly. Therefore you need to adjust the cooking time to how big the piece of fish is. Thinner pieces can be cooked in similar times to the basa whereas thicker pieces need times more like the barramundi.

Whole fish, no matter the type, will take longer to cook than the fillets. Usually I wouldn’t pay fry a whole fish, like I would a fillet, so I’d bake it in the oven instead. You will need to follow the instructions of the recipe you’re following or look up correct timings when cooking whole fish. As a general guide, I cooked a whole snapper the other night, and it was about 20cm in length and only about 2-3cm high, and it only took around 20 minutes to completely cook through. Bigger fish obviously need more time.

Salmon cooked skin side down, with spices and walnuts on top.

How do I make fish taste any good?

The simple answer to this question is: use spices. The slightly longer answer is to use spices mixed with salt, pepper and olive oil so that you can mix them into a paste and rub this paste over the fish before you cook it.

For a fish fillet rub the spices all over both sides, unless the fillet has skin on one side. I don’t put the spices on the skin side because the spices can burn (and then you’ll set the fire alarm off). I also don’t eat the skin so I don’t see the point in wasting the flavour on something that helps me cook the fish, but that I’ll throw away later anyway.

For a whole fish I usually place cuts down each side of the fish and then massage the spices into the cuts. This helps the flavour penetrate further down into the flesh of the fish. Sometimes I also push a slice of lemon into the cuts as well as it helps to keep the whole fish more moist as I cook it in the oven. You can also use this tip on roast chicken (just put a lemon, cut into quarters into the middle cavity of the chicken and it’ll say really moist).

Massage the spice paste into the cuts of the fish.

What spices should I try if I’m going to try cooking fish myself?

Spices are easy to use because you can combine them in many different combinations, depending on what you like or to compliment the cuisine you’re cooking. The spices I rub on my fish are combinations such as:

  • Turmeric, paprika and cumin.
  • Cumin, parsley and lemon zest.
  • Sumac, cumin and dried mint.

You can just experiment with anything you like and see which ones come up good, or find some simple spice blends on the internet (there will also be a spice blends post on here soon enough too).

If you’re not quite game enough to make your own blends supermarkets, ethnic stores and anywhere that sells spices will usually also sell spice blends. I buy one from my local ethnic store called ‘fish spices’ and it’s got cumin, chilli, pepper, mint and other spices in – and a small amount goes a long way, cause it can get really spicy really fast. But you can also try the Mexican blend, the Tuscan blend, Chinese 5 spice powder or anything else you like the look of, and just mix it with some oil or lemon juice to make a paste.

Don’t forget there are also herb blends as well, such as a generic ‘mixed herbs’ or ‘Italian mixed herbs’ that you can use as well. Just a tip though, if you’re using just herbs, cook the fish in butter instead of oil as it gives a better taste overall.


So, think you might be ready for a bit of good, tasty fish now? Come on, it’s not as bad as you think! And if you don’t believe me, head to Hunky Dory in Melbourne (my favourite one is in Moonee Ponds) and see what real fish should taste like.

You never know, you might see me there too.

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