Ingredient Focus 2015: Fish & Seafood

Hisham Wyne investigates the popularity of seafood in the Middle East market
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Nova Scotia Prime Lobster

Clearwater’s frozen raw lobster meat products deliver the same superb taste as live lobster and are available in both shell-on and shell-off varieties. A specialised high pressure extraction process releases the raw meat from its shell, resulting in a chef-ready product ideal for quick and easy preparation. It removes the hassle of cooking and shucking live lobsters.

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Canadian Sea Scallops

Clearwater’s Canadian sea scallops come from the cold, clear waters of the Canadian North Atlantic and are frozen-at-sea within an hour of harvesting to lock in freshness and flavour. No additives are allowed, which means chefs get beautifully seared scallops every single time.

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Preservation is good news: While the UAE might not produce a plethora of vegetables, seafood is always in demand, and also available. Fish stocks off the coast might have something to say about that however — with depletion rates rising due to industrial fishing.

That’s why Banyan Tree Al Wadi’s executive chef Nugraha Wardhana says the resort follows the “Choose Wisely” campaign. “While everyone is serving kingfish or hammour, we’ve decided to cook something else and preserve the fish. We use a lot of local fish and work with a small supplier whose been operating in the Gulf for many a year. We get in delicious prawns, Nimi fish, and the Sultani bream. We try to introduce these and other local fish that aren’t endangered.”

Snow meets sand: Canadian-based company Clearwater Seafoods LP has partnered with distributor Transmed to bring its premium lobster, scallops, coldwater shrimps and clams to customers in the Middle East. Transmed has an established distributor network in the region, and supplies a number of restaurants and hospitality establishments.

Trends

Fish on the grill: Hot off the coals is the preferred way for the region to eat its fish. “People in this region prefer their fish grilled, off the charcoal. We do fried and curried versions, but I think grilled has become popular. We try to marinate them with local ingredients like dukkah and sumac,” says Banyan Tree Al Wadi’s Wardhana.

Seafood is luxury: Set aside the pearls and fine watches. It’s carefully chosen seafood that’s considered luxuriously attractive now. “Seafood is becoming synonymous with luxury, and is pushing the restaurant business into offering better quality,” says Meliá Doha executive assistant manager in charge of food and beverage Nicolas Cedro.

Freshness is value: If it’s not fresh, it’s not worth considering. That’s why seafood purveyors are relying on supply chain partners that use technological ways to ensure seafood stays fresh. “Technology is being used to try and ensure that the seafood stays as true to the form as when it was first caught,” says Crab Tavern executive chef Paul Owen.

Eyeing those oysters: “Oysters are key to everyone’s menu as more people are becoming discerning customers and expecting a certain level of decadence on the menu, even at casual dining restaurants. At Crab Tavern Dubai, we use the fin de Claire variety from France, which elicits incredible reviews,” says Owen.

Expensive crustaceans: According to Flooka executive chef Ibrahim Osseiran, expensive denizens of the sea are finding favour with landlubbers. “There are several eclectic restaurants in Dubai that serve the most expensive crustaceans on the planet. These are imported from United States, Scotland, Norway and Maldives as well as other regions.”

Lobster is loved: Cedro says the crustacean joins a worthy pantheon at the very head of a marine-oriented table. “Lobster is considered luxurious and is in demand even though prices are high. But shrimp, crab, and shellfish are also being increasingly appreciated,” he notes.

West Coast Bucket Broil

Crab Tavern executive chef Paul Owen shares his recipe for crustacean delights at the new restaurant, which has recently opened at Dubai’s Media One Hotel

Equipment needed:

• Large stock pot
• Weighing scales
• Measuring jug
• Eight litre container
• Disposable food safety gloves
• Stock pot for 20 portions

Ingredients

• 5ltr crab stock
• 5 bay Leaves
• 25g old bay seasoning
• 5 each, lemons & zest

Method

• Place ingredients in the large stockpot and simmer for 15 minutes on low heat.
• Check seasoning and chill straight away in a blast chiller set below 5°C.
• Use per serving.

Ingredients for cooked tray - one portion

• 250ml crab broil
• 300g crab claws
• 1 merguez sausage
• 1 lemons & zest
• 1 sweet corn
• 150g ratte potatoes
• 200g lobster
• 50g flat leaf parsley
• Salt & cracked black pepper to taste

Cooking method for tray

• Cook the ratte potatoes and merguez sausage and then chill.

Method for combining stock and cooked tray

• Place the broil stock in the pan and add all the shellfish.
• Simmer for 10 minutes.
• Add the potatoes, sweet corn, and sausage, along with the lemon.
• Simmer for a further four minutes.
• Check seasoning, and garnish with the flat leaf parsley.
• Serve as per dish specification.

How to store the finished dish

• In a covered container, refrigerated between 1° and 4° Celsius for up to 48 hours.

GCC demand for fresh fish products is expected to grow approximately 8% per annum up to 2030, reported the organisers of Seafex 2015. And according to a report by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation, per capita fish consumption across the GCC is estimated at 10kg per year. Courtesy of its high disposable income and strong, high-end year-round tourism, the UAE leads regional per capita consumption rankings at 24kg per year — 5kg higher than the global average

In light of the growing demand in the regional market, we explore the operational concerns, challenges, and triumphs surrounding seafood and fish.

What precautions are required when handling seafood?

Seafood doesn’t like cross-contamination. For establishments serving it, this results in stringent procedures with a number of precautions. Seafood lines are separated out from other ingredients, and many establishments run separate facilities in the same kitchen to handle marine products. “In our hotel seafood is quite categorically controlled and kept completely separate from the rest of the products in our kitchen,” says Meliá Doha’s Cedro.

Commercial seafood operations need to be well prepared and equipped. “You’d need a proper kitchen setup with a dedicated seafood station for the maintenance of hygiene. Then you’d want procedures where you can maintain freshness through scheduled daily deliveries. This manages the challenge of ordering, maintaining and serving fresh stock without interruption,” says co-founder and managing partner of Bertin Bistro and Restaurant Walid Saarti.

Seafood also requires caution in handling. Separate facilities are helpful but not enough in themselves. “You must treat the product with care and respect the ingredients. We are lucky to have a kitchen with a separate seafood production area, so that no risks are taken,” Crab Tavern’s Owen says.

It’s not just the handling that’s tricky. Seafood also calls for specific forms of disposal. One doesn’t just to chuck rogue lobster claws, meandering molluscs or capricious clams down the chute. “You actually need hygienic electronic grinders to properly process and dispose of all seafood waste,” says Saarti.

How long can seafood be stored?

Seafood has perhaps the tightest deadlines of any ingredient available, and a tightly controlled temperature range. When it comes to fresh seafood, there is very little time between sourcing and serving. “Obviously, the deadline for serving seafood is very short, and we take absolutely no risk. Seafood is either directly consumed, or has its lifespan elongated as part of kitchen stock or bisque. Alternatively, we have no hesitation in withdrawing seafood ingredients completely if we feel they’ve been there just a bit too long,” Cedro says.

The short window of opportunity means ingredients should be at their freshest when first sourced. Banyan Tree Al Wadi’s Wardhana offers some handy tips for selecting from the daily catch. “Incredibly fresh fish have eyes that are still clear and popping up. The body is still slimy, the meat is firm and the gills dark.”

Excessive storage time degrades taste. But Cedro says that savouriness considerations aside, it can be downright dangerous to consume seafood that is not in optimum condition.

There is little margin for errors or imprecise planning. Small wonder then that establishments are resorting to innovation that extends the storage life without losing any of the taste. At Dubai’s Crab Tavern, for instance, Owen reveals: “We have a new seafood supplier, who uses magnetism to freeze the products. It’s a brand new process that stops ice crystals from forming and damaging the protein in the fish. That means it tastes as fresh as when it was caught.”

Are there any specific challenges to cooking seafood?

It’s a given that seafood needs to be the freshest it can be before the cooking starts. “Methods need to be innovated and adopted, and cooking time is key. Preparation is also essential. Salt levels need to be carefully monitored. Sometimes, chefs even advocate that all seafood be cooked in the same seawater for consistency,” Cedro says.

The battle for tastebuds gets a trifle testy because seafood offers a delicate, neutral canvas that’s quite easy to interfere with. “You have to balance the tastes of different people all the time while also realising that seafood is perhaps the most critical of cuisines because you can’t compromise either on the freshness or the quality. You really have to be very accurate in cooking it,” says Osseiran.

But Clearwater Europe & Middle East marketing director John Ashmore says there’s no harm in introducing a bit of boldness to the flavouring. “Increasingly, we’re seeing the pairing of spicy and bold flavours with a variety of shellfish.

On the other hand, Cedro believes freshness and natural taste is what makes seafood worth the experience. “The most valuable seafood is served almost alive, or extremely fresh. That way, we can explore the provenance and oceanographic qualities that make certain seafood more venerable than others.”

Saarti concurs. He says there’s a movement towards simplicity, and doing away with overpowering flavours that could interfere with seafood’s inherent texture and taste. “We want to go back to authenticity, using fresh products, preferably locally sourced. When we cook them, we find a way to preserve the originality of seafood without overwhelming it with a host of other ingredients.”

What must be kept in mind when sourcing seafood?

There are two key concerns. First, seafood must be as fresh as it can possibly get. Second, it needs to be sustainable. “There is growing demand for sustainably-harvested wild seafood yet a finite supply of it. We understand that the only way to continually bring high quality to the marketplace is to ensure the long-term sustainability of the resource. That’s why we believe in sustainable fishing. And we see that our customers are increasingly interested in the traceability and sustainability of the seafood they source,” says Ashmore.

For restaurants and hotels, provenance and fishing methods are playing a key role in the sourcing process. Consumers paying above average prices for seafood delicacies want assurances that their patronage isn’t emptying the oceans.

For establishments, that sets an added burden of due diligence and monitoring. The Crab Tavern’s supplier, for example, uses only small scale partners who fish in season using traditional methods. “There is a growing demand for sustainably-harvested seafood,” says Owen.

It’s not just sustainability that’s a concern. The condition and quality of seafood when it arrives at the kitchen determines the final outcome. Osseiran says that seafood storage and serving is predicated on a delicate balancing act. “There’s a cycle that everyone has to maintain. It starts with a trusted supplier because we’re dealing with very sensitive items. We want to be absolutely sure that the seafood has been treated very well during transit. Once the products are in the kitchen, freshness and stringent temperature conditions need to be maintained. The processing and cooking methods are important. And then the cycle starts all over again. That’s the only way quality can be maintained.”

The burden of sustainability is passed down to suppliers, who are tasked with finding fishermen who operate in environmentally conscientious ways. There is also investment required in R&D, and innovation. “Clearwater has invested heavily in science to ensure we are doing the right thing by the environment,” says Ashmore.

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