By Nick Wyke
We humans are creatures of habit. We like to think of ourselves as adventurous, but the truth is, when it comes to food choices, we tend to stick with what we know. Repeatedly, statistics show that in the realm of seafood that normally means tuna, salmon, cod, haddock and prawns.
In the UK alone these five species make up a whopping 80% of seafood consumed. And yet there are so many good reasons to branch out – not least to try something new and take the pressure off overfished and popular species so they can continue to thrive.
Bring on the super sub!
It’s not that you shouldn’t eat sustainably sourced fish from the “Big Five”, it’s just that there are plenty more fish in the sea! Cast your net a little wider and you might find a new favourite that’s possibly cheaper, equally as tasty and sustainably caught. From coley to capelin and ling to sea mullet, these lesser-known fish make tasty alternatives to more popular species and are just waiting to be discovered.
Starting with Europe and North America, before exploring the "Rest of the world" in part two, our guide takes you on a journey around the globe and introduces you to some underappreciated fish. They are all certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, so why not get friendly with your fishmonger and give them a go.
Europe and North America
Profile: Coley is a whitefish also known as saithe or coalfish. It’s an inexpensive relative of the cod family with a delicate sweet flavour and light, flaky texture. Its pink-grey flesh turns paler when cooked and works a treat deep-fried in batter or breadcrumbs, in fish stews and soups.
“Although often overlooked, MSC certified coley is a great sustainable choice for white fish that pairs well with seasonal winter veg and a herby crumb,” says James Strawbridge, chef and MSC UK ocean ambassador.
According to MSC UK and Ireland Program Director, George Clark, we should all be eating more of this fish: “With the cost of living soaring, consumers are looking for whitefish alternatives for tasty family fish suppers. Coley is a fantastic and versatile fish and can be a more affordable option for a fish pie or baked fish.”
Good swap for: cod, haddock
Ling, Benelux and Iceland
Profile: Long considered the poorer (or cheaper) relation to its ‘cousin’, ling is similar in taste and texture to cod. There is, however, a fluffy lightness to its flesh because of the irregular pattern in which the flakes are arranged. It has a long and slender eel-like body which offers a variety of cuts – including the increasingly popular cheeks. It’s a versatile fish that holds its shape when cooking and works well in fish pies, chowder and stews. It makes an excellent alternative to smoked haddock when lightly salted and cold smoked.
“Ling cheeks are nice and juicy and have a texture like scallops. They are becoming trendy in restaurants,” says Icelandic chef Ragnar Eiriksson. “I like to let the ling fillet ‘swim’ in butter in a hot pan and serve with samphire. You only really need three ingredients on a plate.”
Good swap for: cod, haddock
Suggested recipes: Seafood chef and UK MSC ambassador Mitch Tonks likes ling braised in a pot roast with creamy leeks, herbs and bacon or flaked with mash and made into fishcakes with lemon and parsley.
Profile: A lean, flaky white, bass-like fish that comes in many (colourfully named) varieties, from splitnose and darkblotched to widow and chilli pepper. Rockfish is caught along with other species such as lingcod, sablefish and flounder by a family-run, MSC certified groundfish fishery along the Pacific west coast. Also known as rock cod and Pacific snapper, it is popular in Asian cuisines. Rockfish can be steamed or fried whole, sauteed as panko crumbed fillets or used in bakes and chowders.
UK based chef and seafood expert Mitch Tonks is such a big fan that he named his restaurant group after the deepwater fish: "Rockfish is like gurnard in that it’s slightly oily but with big white flakes. It’s a versatile fish in a similar price bracket to haddock. I like to cook it on the plancha and eat it with spinach and hollandaise sauce, in tacos or battered and fried with chips."
Good swap for: salmon, cod, other popular whitefish
Suggested recipe: Spicy wild Alaska rockfish tacos
Lake fish – perch and walleye, Canada
Profile: Perch are typically quite small, with a delicate texture and a mild, slightly sweet flavour. Walleye, on the other hand, are a bit larger, with a firmer texture and a slightly more assertive flavour. They're often compared to cod or haddock, and they're delicious when grilled or roasted.
“Both offer terrific culinary possibilities,” says Canadian MSC ambassador and chef, Charlotte Langley. “Because they're underutilised, they're often cheaper than more popular fish like salmon or tuna. But make no mistake – they're every bit as delicious and offer a unique flavour profile that's well worth exploring.”
“I love to keep things simple and let the natural flavours of the fish shine through,” adds chef Charlotte. “I like to pan-fry perch fillets in a bit of butter and serve them with a light herb salad and some lemon wedges. Whereas I often grill walleye fillets and serve them with a punchy salsa verde or a bright, citrusy sauce.” You can try swapping cod for walleye in this crispy fish sandwich recipe.
Good swap for: salmon, trout. Perch is a great swap for snapper or tilapia in a fish taco recipe, while walleye is a tasty alternative to cod or haddock in a traditional fish and chips dish.
Coldwater shrimp, USA
Profile: Coldwater pink shrimp are small and typically used in salads or shrimp cocktails. They are not the chunky, warmwater shrimp favoured by many Americans – these often come from non-certified-sustainable regions of the US or are imported farmed shrimp. Despite shrimp ranking consistently in the top 3 most popular seafoods in the US, the little pink shrimp swim under the radar.
Those caught wild by the MSC certified Oregon Pink Shrimp Fishery are known for their sweet and sea-salty shellfish tang and delicate texture. They are best served cold where their subtle flavours can take centre stage. If you choose to serve them in a hot dish, add them just before serving.
"Coldwater shrimp may be small but they pack a big punch in flavour," says chef Charlotte. “They always come peeled, cooked, and frozen, which is super convenient. All you have to do is thaw and toss into your favourite sauce or curry, or throw on a pizza, flatbread, or taco!"
Good swap for: farmed shrimp and prawns
Profile: Anchovies often get a bad rap because they’re seen as too salty, bony, and from a can. But these mini silvery fish are incredibly versatile and will add a unique hit to dressings, salads, and pastas. Anchovies from the MSC certified Cantabrian fishery in Spain are skinned, boned, salted and marinated in (often organic) olive oil. They are a gourmet staple and fetch a premium price on the market. If, however, you can find sea-fresh anchovies, they’re delicious eaten on their own.
In respect of Cantabrian anchovies, Italian chef Lello Palomba says: “The more we choose sustainable fish, the more it will be available in the market; in this way we send an important message throughout the supply chain: we love our oceans and want to take care of them.”
Good swap for: Anchovies without MSC certification and other small non-sustainable forage fish.