I’ve never been a particularly keen fish-eater. Fish depends, I think, more than any other food, on a sense of place for its enjoyment, and while some of my favourite ever meals have been simply- or barely-cooked white fish or shellfish, eaten within pissing distance of the sea, I have never felt much of an urge to recreate them at home. Grilled cuttlefish or prawns, sea urchin scooped from the shell, lose their piquancy without the seasoning provided by the crash of waves and the tang of the salt air.
The flavours of oily fish, on the other hand, seem to travel a little better. (Although their flesh does not – the meat is really only good for one day; mackerel fishermen, in times when such things mattered, used to have special license to trade on Sundays so they did not waste their catch). They are more robust, and will stand up to bigger flavours, – smoke and vinegar and punchy fruit – than the vague wisps of fennel and lemon which so often accompany more delicate creatures; this also allows for a little more leeway in the quality of the fish itself. You will never recreate that beautiful bream you ate on the beach, with a squeeze of lemon and a glass of something cold – not with a supermarket specimen, anyway. With oily fish, though, the spices and sauces carry the burden that the flesh can not.
Some of the nicest seafood I have ever eaten has been in Turkey, but very often in the form of the fresh, the white, the inimitable. Fish are everywhere, live in buckets or slithering on ice, twisted with rigor, in varieties unobtainable in Britain, and are often very simply grilled or fried. Sometimes, though, for mezze dishes, the treatments are a little more complex. The following is based on a dish we ate in Kadikoy, the Asian side of Istanbul, a very unusual preparation of mackerel, almost confited in a spiced, syrupy oil.
For 8 as a mezze, perhaps 4 as a starter, with some bread and salad
8 mackerel fillets, pinboned
2 tsp coriander seeds
200ml pomegranate molasses
100ml red wine vinegar
8 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
grated zest of one orange
6 banana shallots, thinly sliced
500ml good olive oil
You can leave the fillets whole, or slice them in half widthways and then again lengthways for ease of eating as a mezze, either way, salt lightly and set aside.
In a wide pan (ideally wide enough to fit the fish in one layer, and deep enough to hold all the ingredients) gently toast the coriander seeds until they start to give up their aroma, then pour in the molasses and vinegar. Stir them together, then add the garlic, orange zest, and shallots. Let the mixture simmer for a bit, although you don’t want it to cook particularly.
Lay the fish in evenly, and then pour the oil over it. Warm it over a very gentle heat – you will see bubbles coming up through and from the fish – until the pieces of mackerel are just, just cooked, having lost their translucent grayness. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and set aside – the mackerel will carry on cooking as they cool.
Serve with some of the juices and some appropriate accompaniments.