FOOD: Budget cooking at home series

Crumbed fish cake with a yoghurt filling Picture: LANCE SETO

Fresh fish and seafood prices have plummeted during the lockdown, especially in the West, because the demand for the tourism and resort industry has declined. The government lifting of the kawakawa ban during their spawning season is also a recognition that fresh fish is one of the abundant sources of food that Fiji is blessed with to feed the country during the economic downturn. Fishermen are also being more creative in selling their catches by driving their ice box from door to door, house to restaurant, to quickly sell their fresh fish. As an island civilisation, we have returned to the sea for sustenance and nutrition, and that is not entirely a bad thing. Seafood has sustained humankind since we first learned how to catch fish, and is one of the primary sources of protein and food medicines. With fresh fish in such abundance, there are many ways to enjoy this seafood apart from BBQ and curry.

You can’t beat a good fish cake – simple ingredients, seasoning and fish are all you need. Fish cakes are the perfect example of a marriage of convenience, which has become far more than the sum of its leftover parts. They exude a culinary charm that belies their thrifty origins. The beauty of a fish cake is that it turns the boredom of eating tinned, boiled, grilled or fried fish into something wonderfully surprising. The flaked fish mixes with all sorts of other ingredients and absorbs their flavours, turning into something far more textural and appealing than a dead fish staring at you on the plate. And that’s the point of a great fish cake – it transforms leftovers of fish and starch into something not as fishy.

Most coastal civilisations have some sort of fish cake recipe to take advantage of their abundant access to fish and seafood. In Morocco, local fisherman mince freshly caught sardines, and mix them with bread, shaped them into balls and quickly cooked them with tomatoes, cumin and preserved lemon. The sardines, with all their natural intensity, just bowed down to the acidity of the tomatoes and the lemon, creating a memorable yet subtle experience, not fishy at all.

In Thailand, the tod mun pla is a spicy red curry fish cake with holy basil, long beans and fish sauce. They are not as firm as other fish cake recipes as there is no starch and the fish is added raw, but are a equally delicious way to enjoy fish. The Turkish balik koftesi is a fish fritter of garlic, parsley and breadcrumbs. The Jewish Gefilte fish is a pescatarian’s meatloaf of ground fish, onions, starch and eggs. And the Portuguese bolinho de bacalau are a fried fish cake of smoked cod, potatoes, garlic and herbs.

 

The fish (or seafood)

Fish cakes by definition are made from fish but you can use any seafood including crab, prawns, lobster or kai clams. Such is the genius and simplicity of making fish cakes that nearly any type of fish or seafood, fresh or tinned can be used. Leftover BBQ, lovo or tavu fish are perfect as the smokiness of the fish flesh adds an earthy flavour taste that pairs well with a tangy dipping sauce like yoghurt or tartare. And before you give the leftover curry fish to the farm animals, strip off the flesh and make some curried fish cakes and serve with homemade chutney. For more luxurious versions, imported salmon and smoked salmon are perfect, but expensive, in fish cakes. If fresh fish is hard to find when you want to make fish cakes, a tin of tuna can work just as well, just make sure you drain the liquid properly as the excess springwater or oil can turn your fish cakes mushy.

 

The starch

Keeping your fish cake mixture as dry as possible is the key to a firm textured cake. The recommended ratio of fish to starch is 2:1 – that is, you need twice as much fish to starch, otherwise its not really a fish cake but a cake with fish. The starch can be old breadcrumbs, cooked rice, leftover pulau or your favourite root vegetable and is the key ingredient that turns your fish into a cake. Soggy mashed potatoes are a classic blunder that some novice cooks make when preparing fish cakes. Keep the starch as dry as possible. Most overseas recipes call for potato but make your fish cakes more local by substituting potato with dalo, kumala, cassava, breadfruit or yams. Keep the starch simple. If using root crops – boil, drain and crush them with a fork.

 

The binding

To bind together the fish and starch into a firm cake most recipes use eggs, and some include flour. You can omit eggs if you use root crops like dalo, cassava or breadfruit as these are sticky when boiled anyway. To keep your fish cake gluten free, substitute wheat flour with coconut, cassava, maize or rice flour.

 

The coating

Breadcrumbs, egg and flour can be a perfect fish cake coating to stick to your fish mix, but not all fish cake recipes have a crumb coating, most just use a flour. You could also use crumbled peanuts, cornflakes or just coat them in cornflour – but the crispier the better. Breadcrumbs come in all types of varieties, fresh, stale, desiccated and Panko. My choice is always the Japanese Panko breadcrumbs that many international supermarkets now stock. They are crunchier and absorb less oil when frying. Try adding some herbs to the breadcrumb mix too.

Once you’ve assembled your fish cakes you need to put them back into the fridge to firm up. If you skip this step then your cakes will inevitably be soft and mushy. Now you just have decide what delicious sauce you’re going to serve with your re-fashioned fish dish – creamy, tomato or chilli?

 

n Lance Seeto is the host of Exotic

Delights: Fijian Superfoods, every Tuesday night 7.45pm only on FBC-TV.

 

 

 

 BUDGET COOKING RECIPES

TARTAR SAUCE

1/2 cup cornichons (pickled cucumbers), finely chopped

2 green spring onions, finely chopped

5 drops Sriracha or hot sauce

1 tsp lemon juice

1 tbsp Dijon mustard

1 cup mayonnaise

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix together the cornichons, onions, hot sauce, lemon juice, mustard, mayonnaise, salt and pepper, then refrigerate.

SIMPLE, PERFECT Fish Cakes

1kg cooked fish, flaked and deboned

500 grams potatoes (or other root crop), boiled and mashed

1 spring onion, chopped

2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

1 tbsp normal flour plus extra for dusting

1 egg, beaten

Salt

oil

  1. Mix the fish with the drained mashed potatoes, onion, parsley, flour, egg and salt. Form into cakes, dust with flour and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  2. Fry the fish cakes in oil until brown and crusty.
  3. Serve with tartar sauce

THAI FISH CAKES

350gm raw fish meat, dried thoroughly if thawed from frozen

2-3 tbsp Thai red curry paste

1 egg yolk

1 tsp raw sugar

½ cup long beans

1/3 cup Thai or green basil, sliced into ribbons if large

5 kaffir lime or lemon leaves, finely julienned

Fish sauce, as needed

Sweet Chilli Dipping Sauce

3 cloves garlic

1 tsp dried red chilli, crushed

Red chillies to taste, optional

½ cup white sugar

½ tsp salt

1/3 cup white vinegar

3 Tbsp water

garnish – peanuts, cucumber, onion

 

For the dipping sauce:

  1. Place fresh and dried chillies, garlic, vinegar, water, sugar and salt in a blender and blend just until there are no more chunks.
  2. Pour the blended chilies into a small pot and bring to a simmer, then simmer for about 3-5 minutes or until it has a consistency of a thin syrup. The sauce will thicken as it cools, so if it is too thick once it is cool, you can add more water. Set aside until ready to use.

For the Thai fish cakes:

  1. Combine the fish fillet pieces, curry paste, egg yolk and sugar in a food processor. Process until fine, scraping the sides as needed. Then keep processing for a few minutes longer until the fish is firm enough that it holds its shape well when spooned.
  2. Transfer the fish paste into a mixing bowl and add chopped long beans, basil and lime/lemon leaves; stir until well combined.
  3. Have a bowl of cold water and some paper towel ready. Heat a frypan over medium heat until hot, then add just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Wet your hands and a tablespoon in the cold water, then scoop a heaping tablespoon of fish paste with the wet spoon and place in your hands. Gently pat the fish cakes to form into patties and place in a preheated pan. Fry until browned on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. You may need to add more oil as you go.
  4. To serve, stir cucumber slices, peanuts and onions into the dipping sauce and serve with the fish cakes.

TAVU FISH CAKES

500gm potatoes or other root crop starch

1kg smoked fish flesh (cooked over charcoal or BBQ)

1 big bunch of fresh parsley

1 handful of fresh mint

1 fresh red chilli

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

2 lemons, plus extra to serve

2 limes

2 large eggs

½ cup normal flour

oil, for deep-frying

 

  1. Cook the potatoes in salted boiling water for about 15 minutes, until soft. Drain them to get rid of any excess water, then return to the pot and mash.
  2. Flake the cooked fish into a large bowl, picking out any bones and removing the skin.
  3. Finely chop the parsley, mint and chilli, then bash the fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar.
  4. Add the mashed potato to the fish, along with the parsley, mint, chilli, fennel seeds, eggs and the zest of the lemons and limes. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Mix well, taste and add more salt if necessary.
  5. Flour your work surface, then take 1 tablespoon of the mix in your hands with a little flour and pat it into a flattened circle, rolling it in the flour.
  6. Pour enough oil into a large heavy-bottomed pan to fill the pan about a quarter of the way up. Heat over a medium heat or 185°C.
  7.             Shallow-fry the fishcakes for about 5 minutes until brown and crispy. Drain on kitchen paper, sprinkle with sea salt and serve on a large plate with lots of lemon halves.

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