Up the Valley: Fish Food

March 5, 2013

I often find myself including obscure references in these columns that I fear no one else appreciates. Most people are too young to remember them, and those who are old enough forgot them years ago.

You may therefore miss my meaning when I tell you: I am turning Japanese (I really think so).

You see, I’m on a diet emphasizing food prepared in the Japanese manner. It’s a lot like the “French Women Don’t Get Fat”-type diets, except that instead of featuring skinny super-confident French Champagne-swilling cookbook authors (and their scary mothers) it features skinny super-competent Japanese sake-sipping cookbook authors (and their even-scarier mothers).

Both diets emphasize portion control, the French version of which is to invite a companion to share your dinner plate from which you slowly feed each other by hand, followed by vigorous sex. The Japanese version involves serving tiny food on odd-sized plates decorated by twisted pickled ginger slices and artfully sculpted vegetables, the preparation and serving of which leaves everyone too exhausted for sex. Further distinguishing Japanese delicacy from French debauchery are the cupfuls of powdery green tea where the carafes of wine should be.

The Japanese diet relies on rice, which is wonderfully warm, filling, and can be repurposed as pudding. Plus you can simply toss rice into an electric cooker and leave. Not so easy is creating the “umami” taste by combining exotic vegetables, strange soy products, bonito flakes, kelp and other seaweeds into labor-intensive broths like “dashi” (which is Japanese for “makes your kitchen smell like Benihana”). Daily shopping for fresh ingredients is required, as is stockpiling cartons of leftover rice and soup in the freezer, now resembling a specimen lab.

But the best recipes feature fish of multiple varieties. Fish is low in fat, yet high in the fatty acids, vitamins and minerals so essential to good health. But there is one minor caveat: Eating seafood may kill you. It can contain traces of toxins and enough mercury and heavy metals to foster a fish phobia. When farm-raised it can become diseased, while even the wild-caught versions are susceptible to whatever some careless camper dumped in the river the day before.

The latest scare concerns falsely labeled fish. Fully 40 percent of Northern California fish purchases and 76 percent of sushi may be faux. Apparently there are schools of rockfish out there cleverly disguising themselves as snapper, and tacky tilapia and grabby grouper angling to pass as ritzy red snapper. Scientists now trace fish DNA like criminologists on an episode of “CSI: Marine World.”

Not only does one worry about sustainability and sourcing for health and environmental reasons, there are social consequences as well. A serving of inappropriate fish can be as unwelcome here as foie gras or Sonoma wine. Fortunately, the Monterey Bay Aquarium provides handy brochures and smartphone apps so that the correctness of consumers’ fish choices can be instantly confirmed. It is comforting to know that one’s mackerel has the moral high ground.

Still, there are times when you crave that ahi tuna burger, and so customers skulk away from the supermarket fish counter like potheads from a medical marijuana dispensary. They shop for suspiciously sourced salmon or grab off-season crab. Buying endangered Chilean sea bass can be considered bad form; buying abalone can be a criminal offense. It’s enough to make you eat red meat.

My fish-fairness role model is Cindy Pawlcyn, the renowned local chef who also serves as culinary partner to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s restaurants. She is well-known for serving only reliably sourced, sustainable seafood, and I’m confident that the fish on her plates once led happy and fulfilled lives. Still, serving fish at an aquarium is a bit like serving panda burgers and giraffe dogs at the zoo; I would have expected tofu in the shape of a trout. Cindy’s onsite presence must make the aquarium fish nervous, although perhaps not if they heard that she suffers from a seafood allergy, and can be held at bay by an aggressive lobster while the other crustaceans make a break for it.

Although I now launder my garbage and deodorize my hands with a miraculous steel egg, I am nonetheless hugely popular with the cat, who gazes at me longingly as if I were an open can of plump Italian sardines. Meanwhile, I am feeling healthier and thinner all the time. And while (to quote from “The Mikado”) not every seafood variety I’ve tried makes me say Yum-Yum, I’ve discovered that there are indeed lots of good fish in the sea.

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One Response to “Up the Valley: Fish Food”

  1. duncanr Says:

    food+sex vs food-sex

    no question which diet I’m favouring 😆


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