Any visit to one of the Portuguese restaurants in town would give you an inkling of how different our food culture would have been if the Portuguese rather than the Germans or South Africans colonized us.
For starters, our traditional steak braai would have been a seafood braai -with crayfish, sardines and kabeljou instead of tjops, sosaties and boerewors.
Our cooking condiments would have been different too. Olive oil instead of vegetable or sunflower oil. More garlic and definitely more chillis. More vegetables and less schnitzels.
But, that did not happen and we, as a nation, seem rather happy with our meat-heavy diets that were both traditional and reinforced by German and South African colonialism.
Few would argue against the regular inclusion of more fish in our nation’s daily diet to secure long-term health benefits. After all, Namibia produces sufficient volumes of fish to supply its people with more healthy protein options.
In my view there are a few reasons why we do not eat as much fish as we should.
Firstly, close to 90% of all fish caught in Namibian waters are exported and thus, are not available for consumption by Namibians. The FAO estimated that in 2004 Namibia had available, for local consumption, some 33 kilograms of red meat per person per year. In 2008 that quantity rose to 38 kilograms and 2009 it declined to 28 kilograms. In contrast, in 2004 the quantity of fish available was only 13.5 kilograms per person per year. That declined to 12.9 kilograms in 2009.
The economic arguments in favour of exporting our fish are compelling and should not be dismissed. It is one of the largest sources of revenue, and it creates a very large number of jobs. But, if we want our people to be health by eating more fish, we should make more fish available to them.
Secondly, the quality of fish available on the local market is simply appalling. It is the low quality, cheap versions that everyone is expecting us to eat. Unless you catch your own, chances are that you’d not find any. Decent quality frozen fish is more readily available from supermarkets but is imported and expensive and thus out of reach for the average Namibian. Not to mention the poor.
Namibia’s three largest coastal towns – Swakopmund, Walvis Bay, and Luderitz – have no fresh fish markets. No place where fisherman can sell their daily catch to the public.
Come to think of it, I cannot think of any other place I visited all over the world where fish is caught in abundance but not sold directly to the general population. I suspect it’s prohibited by law, but come on let’s get serious. With a bit of thinking, we can have these markets and regulate the catch.
The bigger problem, I suspect, is attitudinal and political. Not on the side of the ordinary people but on the side of those who make the laws and receive the revenue.
I do not like tinned fish and I suspect most other people don’t either. It is low quality fish, cooked to death with no imagination. Its flavour profiles are boring and leave me no choice as to how I want to cook it.
When given a choice, we’d all go for good quality fresh fish or at least decent quality frozen fish.
Thirdly, given our limited exposure to good quality fish, most people do not know how to cook it properly, and as a result, are intimidated by it. Thus, they avoid it all together and go for the more familiar chicken or red meat options.
If you are one of these, here are some tips on how to cook your fish properly.
If you buy fresh fish, make sure it is really fresh. The eyes should be clear and not sunken in or milky. The flesh should be firm and bounce back if your press down on it with a finger. If the imprint stays, the fish is not fresh. Avoid fish that smells like fish. Fresh fish has no smell. If it smells, the enzymes on the skin already had time to start their destructive work and the fish is no longer fresh.
If you buy frozen fish, buy just enough to cook one meal. Do not refreeze the fish, instead, cook it at once. And do not let it linger in your refrigerator for it will contaminate the rest of your food.
Fish is best cooked over high heat for a short time. The cooking time for fish is determined by the thickness of the fish, not the weight. Thus, measure the fish (whole, stuffed or filleted) at its thickest end. Cook the fish for 5 to 7 minutes per centimeter of thickness. Turn the fish only once, half way through the cooking time. The fish is cooked when it is no longer translucent but opaque in colour and flakes easily. Fish has very little connective tissue and some have very little fat, so do not over-cook your fish – it will be dry, rubbery and generally unpleasant.
It is best to thaw frozen fish completely before cooking it. All fish should be brought up to room temperature before cooking. You might want to try some of the following techniques:
- Oven baking: Use a hot oven pre-heated to 230 degrees Celsius. Season the fish to your preference and drizzle with oil or small knobs of butter. Bake on a lightly oiled baking tray or sheet.
- Braai: Fish can be cooked whole or butterflied. If cooked whole, score the fish by making three or four cuts diagonally across the fish on both sides. Cooked this way, it is best to marinade the fish for a few hours (depending on the marinade used) before cooking. Use the marinade to brush the fish during cooking to keep it moist. Use hot coals and a smaller split-type braai grid that has been brushed with oil to make sure the fish does not stick. The split-type grid makes it easy to turn the fish.
- Oven steaming: To do this, place the seasoned fish on a piece of aluminum foil. Fold the edges in to form a bag. Add a cooking liquid (typically white wine) and seal the package. Place on an oven try and bake in an oven pre-heated to 230 degrees Celsius.
- Poaching: The fish is essentially boiled in a liquid. Depending on your preference, this liquid could be flavoured stock, wine, milk or water. Typically, poached fish is served with a sauce, as it can be quite bland. Wrap the fish in cheesecloth before adding it to the boiling liquid.
- Pan-frying: The fish is cooked in an open frying pan to which some oil or butter or both is added. If preferred the seasoned fish is rolled in flour, dipped in a liquid (typically milk or beaten egg), crumbed and fried. After both sides are cooked the fish is drained on absorbent paper.
- Deep frying: The fish is seasoned and dipped first in flour, then in batter which consists of flour, seasoning and a liquid such as water, milk or beer. Depending on the recipe, crumbs could be added before the fish is cooked in a large container of very hot oil (about 190 degrees Celsius) and cooked till done.
- Searing: When food is seared, it is cooked on the stove-top, in oil or butter or both, over high heat (about 150 degrees Celsius) until the surface water evaporates and the skin caramelizes. It is then transferred to a hot oven to bake for a few minutes until done. To ensure that your fish caramelizes properly, leave the skin on.
Use fish heads and bones to make your own fish stock, which could be used as the base for soups, risottos, fish stews and sauces. But use only white fish for stock, not the oily varieties.
Add the bones and flavorings (vegetables such as onions, carrots, celery or herbs and spices) to cold water and bring to the boil. Let it simmer and skim the foam from the stock. Do this regularly or these impurities will make your stock cloudy and bitter. Cook for 30 minutes, no longer. Then strain through a sieve lined with cheesecloth and use as needed. This stock could also be reduced to form a glaze or demi-glaze.
This week I got some fresh yellowtail from the Fishmonger.
For this recipe I have poached the fish and reduced the poaching liquid to make an Asian inspired glaze for the fish. I am serving it with a nice fresh salad. What could be healthier?
As for tinned fish: you are on your own I am afraid. After an acquaintance nearly killed me with his version of “two-types-of-tinned-fish-and-all-other-condiments-I-could-find-added-in-one-bowl” out there in the deep Kaokoland, I have avoided the stuff. But if you have a recipe that you trust, and is liked by at least half the world’s current population, let me know. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll try it.