BW Challenges The Modern and State & Lemp to an Asian Fish Cook-off 

From snakehead to milkfish, the nets were cast wide

click to enlarge fishcover.jpg

Jeffrey C. Lowe

A pearly fish scale sailed over my head as I elbowed for space at the Orient Market's crowded fish counter. Wide-eyed, I watched a mallet split a thick fish spine with a rhythmic thwack and a knife scrape flesh against the grain, scattering scales like bits of burnt toast.

This wasn't the grocery store fish counter experience I was used to: Piles of pre-cooked bubblegum shrimp resting next to pretty portions of skinless salmon in a pristine aquatic diorama adorned with glistening half lemons and decorative fluffs of kale, no muck or mess in sight.

The Orient Market, however, pulls back the curtain on this fishy facade, leaving heads, guts, gills and other bony bits intact. The bounty arrives early on Saturday morning and so do the customers.

To navigate these unfamiliar waters, I convinced Modern Hotel chef Nate Whitley—recently named a James Beard Award Semifinalist in the Best Chef Northwest category—and State & Lemp chefs Jay Henry and Kris Komori to join me at the market on a recent Saturday. I also proposed a friendly challenge: Select fresh fish from the market that day and figure out how to serve it in their restaurants later that night.

When I pulled into the potholed Orient Market parking lot at 10 a.m., it was already filled with cars. Young families pushed strollers and old ladies steadied themselves with shopping carts as they marched into the usually quiet market. Whitley examined a package of thin Enoki mushrooms and placed them in his basket. Komori and Henry were already huddled around the bustling fish counter.

Hand-lettered signs advertised bluefish ($3.25 a pound), milkfish ($2.99 a pound) and Norway mackerel ($3.99 a pound). Piles of shiny snakehead ($4.99 a pound) glided through the crushed ice like fat eels. For those most familiar with shrimp, salmon, canned tuna, tilapia and pollock—the top five seafoods consumed per capita in the United States, according to the National Fisheries Institute—it can be a pretty intimidating environment.

click to enlarge Norwegian mackerel is highly prized in Japan because its fat content is higher than its Asian cousins. - TARA MORGAN
  • Tara Morgan
  • Norwegian mackerel is highly prized in Japan because its fat content is higher than its Asian cousins.

"I don't think most people can handle the guts and the scales flying everywhere," said Whitley. "Everything has to be pristine, or it's not fit for consumption."

According to an article in the Washington Post, that's exactly how most Americans prefer their fish. Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish and American Catch, says people tend to have three complaints about fish: "One, I don't want to touch it. Two, I don't know how to cook it. And three, I don't want it smelling up my kitchen."

Orient Market customers don't seem to have the same concerns. They prefer flavor over fairytale.

Scanning the selection, Komori ran his fingers down the gray fin of a milkfish, known as bangus in the Philippines, where it's the national fish. Milkfish is an important source of cultured seafood in Southeast Asia, where it is often pressure-cooked because of its notorious tiny bones.

"I would say about 80 percent of their fish I've never dealt with," said Komori, who worked in places like Portland, Ore.'s Park Kitchen before relocating to Boise.

Next, Komori's eyes landed on the snakehead, an elongated predatory fish native to parts of Africa and Asia with skin the color of a dirty quarter. Snakehead reproduce rapidly and are a popular food source, especially in Thailand.

"There's something about the snakehead," said Komori, with a laugh. "I kind of want to check it out, just to be able to tell people, 'This is snakehead.'"

Aside from its exotic name, snakehead has some creepy street cred. National Geographic named it one of the "13 Scariest Freshwater Animals" because it's a top-level predator with a row of sharp teeth and is "known to attack anything moving" when breeding. Snakehead can also breathe air and survive out of water for up to four days. They're considered an invasive species in North America.

While Komori and Henry rooted around for the most appetizing snakehead, Whitley gravitated toward a mound of medium-sized Norwegian mackerel with a silvery, tiger-like pattern spread across their dorsal sides.

"I was thinking about getting mackerel, just because it's a good size to serve either the whole fish or also have smoked mackerel, which I think is delicious," said Whitley.

According to an article in ScienceNordic, Norwegian mackerel are much sought after in Japan. In the 1980s, the Japanese mackerel industry crashed due to overfishing, and the country started purchasing the oily fish from Norway. Though Japanese fishermen today net more mackerel than their Norwegian counterparts, the country still imports about 100,000 tons from Norway every year. The reason for that lies with biology: At their peak in September and October, Norwegian mackerel contain twice as much fat as Japanese mackerel.

Komori's eyes lit up as he recounted a unique Japanese fish preparation perfect for mackerel.

"There's a cool dish called nanbanzuke. It's a Japanese pickled fish where you fry it first and then you pickle it. ... It obviously doesn't hold that kind of crispy texture like a dredged, fried fish, but it's a pretty cool technique," he said.

After settling on their selections—milkfish and Norwegian mackerel for The Modern and snakehead, mackerel scad and sardines for State & Lemp—we watched the fishmongers go to work. Grabbing a pair of kitchen shears, one fishmonger lopped off the snakehead's fins then began scraping off its scales. With a crack, she split its head down the middle, sliced through its firm belly with a flick of her knife and scooped out its entrails. After a quick rinse in the sink, her partner placed the catch in a clear bag and threw it on the scale.

On the way to the register, Komori stopped to snag some Chinese long beans, a bundle of green tendrils that snaked around like Medusa's tresses. I had a suspicion those beans would slither their way into a particular dish.

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