A sustainable guide to SASSI green-listed fish
With our 3000 km coastline, centuries-old fishing communities, colourful fishing harbours and avid anglers, South Africa is a fish lover’s paradise. Add two oceans to the mix – the warm Indian and icy Atlantic – and you end up with the perfect environment for an unrivalled array of fish to choose from. But over-fishing is a harsh reality and sadly many of our fish species are under threat.
I love fish markets. They are always alive with action and are the best way to ensure that the fish you are buying are fresh and seasonal – but it is important that as responsible customers we know what fish should and shouldn’t be on sale. It’s no secret that I have always been passionate about sustainability, and as a chef I know how important it is to nurture, protect and respect our natural resources. Being appointed a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) ambassador has underscored this commitment to the environment and sustainability – and protecting our natural marine resources is a large part of that.
The WWF Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) does incredible work helping consumers play an active role in helping to protect our marine life by providing easy-to-use informative tools and apps that guide us around making sustainable seafood choices. These tools categorise seafood species according to a ‘traffic light’ system of red (don’t buy), orange (think twice) and green (best choice). If you buy fish, you really should have the SASSI app on your phone – it’s so easy to use and means you can get creative in the kitchen knowing that your supper isn’t negatively impacting the delicate balance in our oceans.
Here’s a guide to what SASSI “best choice” fish to buy and how to maximise their flavours.
ALBACORE TUNA | SEASON: AUTUMN
(also Albakoor, Longfin tunny, Longfin tuna, Langvin tuna)
SASSI Status: Green
What to know This fish is found up and down the whole Indian and Atlantic coasts and can reach up to 45kg. Albacore has the lightest meat of the tuna varieties, a mild, rich taste and a firm, steaky texture, with large, moist flakes. While Albacore meat is a lot less dense than many other tunas it is one of the fattier species and is loaded with heart-healthy omega-3. If you’re in Cape Town, head to picturesque Hout Bay harbour for a pick of the freshest tuna catches. If you time your visit right, you can watch the fishermen unloading their tuna hauls onto the pier.
What to do: Pan searing is the classic way to prepare tuna – ensuring it is cooked on the outside while leaving the inside raw. Tuna’s distinct taste means it can hold flavours well – try coating in a crust of coriander, sesame seed, or freshly ground pepper. A cast iron skillet works best for searing. You’ll want to cook for just one or two minutes on each side. If you’re planning to cook your tuna on the braai – try it, it is delicious! – it’s worth marinating your steaks first so they absorb some robust flavours. Mix together a little olive oil, honey, cumin, paprika and lemon juice – add garlic and a little coriander too. Again, it is a quick cook – and remember you don’t need to rest tuna.
ANGELFISH | SEASON: ALL YEAR
(also Atlantic Pomfret, Brama Brama, Engelvis)
SASSI Status: Green
What to know: Angelfish are caught along the West and South Coast and have a dry firm flesh, sweet flavour, and delicate flake.
What to do: Angelfish likes a simple treatment. Try pan frying with a light dusting of flour seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon zest. To braai angelfish, make a light basting sauce by mixing together a little butter, garlic, dill and lime. Braai skin-side down, basting gently as the fish cooks – it will need around 15 minutes over the coals.
DEEP-WATER CAPE HAKE | SEASON: ALL YEAR
(also: Stockfish, Stockvis, Merlu, Fishfingers, Haddock, Hake)
SASSI Status: Green
What to know: These slow-growing deep water fish are hands-down the most-consumed fish in South Africa and are fished mainly along the western and northern Cape coastlines right the way up to the border of Namibia. This firm, white-fleshed fish has a flaky texture and mild flavour, making it the everyman fish. No trip to Cape Town is complete without a visit to Kalkies in Kalk Bay or Snoekies or Fish on the Rocks in Hout Bay, where hake, deep fried in a crunchy batter and served with slap chips, makes for a quintessential South African seaside Sunday takeaway.
What to do: This versatile fish knows no bounds – whether you choose to bake, fry, pickle or grill, hake won’t let you down. For the ultimate comfort food, I love flaking hake to make fishcakes, bringing its flavour to life with a sprinkling of herbs and a little chilli for some zing. And at Easter time, who can resist pickled fish? Hake absorbs the flavours of the curry wonderfully and maintains its firmness throughout the cooking process. Perfection!
SNOEK | SEASON: AUTUMN AND WINTER
(also Barracouta, Cape snoek, Kaapse snoek)
SASSI Status: Green
What to know: Snoek is integral to South Africa’s culinary and cultural heritage and has been a staple for centuries – no wonder it is such a point of pride in our culinary traditions. This oily fish, with its distinct taste, is caught mainly along the southern and western coasts.
What to do: That depends on who you ask! Just like those brightly wrapped Christmas chocolates, everyone has their favourite favourite – whether that is smothering it in apricot jam and tossing it on the coals, coating it in a spicy rub and smoking it, or making a tasty bobotie. Then there’s snoek pâté, pickled snoek, snoek fishcakes… the list is – quite literally – endless! And of course, the most love of all – smoor snoek. Traditionally, smoor snoek was made from leftover braaied snoek, but now it has earned its status as a dish in its own right. Smoor means braised, but snoek that’s been smoored has already been cooked by the time it gets braised. My favourite thing to do with snoek that I’ve smoored in onions, tomatoes, garlic and parsley, is to wrap it phyllo pastry to create a smoor snoek pie. Every bite is heaven!
YELLOWTAIL | SEASON: SPRING, SUMMER, AUTUMN
(also: Cape Yellowtail, Geelstert, Yellowtail Amberjack)
SASSI Status: Green
What to know: This migratory fish is caught all along the South African coast, but predominantly off the south-western and western shores. This oily fish has a firm flesh and a substantial texture and flavour. With its distinctive yellow tail, this beauty can grow up to one metre in length and has always been a prized catch for fisherman. Just like snoek, yellowtail features greatly in many South African traditional family seafood recipes that have been passed down – and loved – through generations.
What to do: The rich and buttery flavour of yellowtail gives dishes a distinct taste. Baked, grilled, smoked, fried or braaied – you can’t really go wrong with this versatile fish. And, fun fact, it is a favourite in Japan for sashimi where it goes by the name, Hamachi. If you like your fish to have a bit of a bite, blacken your yellowtail fillets by coating them in a blend of spices – try paprika, cayenne, cumin, thyme, pepper, salt and a little mustard powder for some heat – then pop them under the grill to create a delicious crust. Or for a more delicate flavour, bake your yellowtail fillets on a low heat then top with a creamy lemon caper sauce.
TO MARKET, TO MARKET
How to shop for fresh fish like a pro.
RISE & SHINE The early bird catches the freshest fish! Find out what time the fish market you’re visiting opens and get there bright and early to get first pick.
CHECK YOUR APP: Make sure you have the SASSI app downloaded on your phone. Scan to check that the fish you are purchasing is on the green list. As consumers we can all make a difference by making responsible and sustainable choices. That way our children and grandchildren will get to enjoy the ocean’s bounty too.
PLAN YOUR MEAL Keen to replicate a restaurant or chef’s signature dish? Single out a recipe you’d like to cook – it will help you make more considered choices.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH A fish market (and the fish you’re thinking of buying) should smell like the ocean, not smelly.
WATCH FOR QUEUES If you see people lined up at a particular fish stall, head there!
SHINE BRIGHT The freshest fish has both bright eyes and red, glossy gills. Sunken eyes, dull skin and squishy looking or slimy flesh are your signs to keep on walking. The best quality shellfish (like scallops) will be pearly, almost translucent.
JUST OFF THE BOAT Freshly caught fish has moist and slightly slippery skin and a firm tail.
SEASON’S BEST Different seafood shines in different seasons. Do your research before you pick the recipe you’d like to create so that you can find the right fresh fish that’s in season to match.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING Many fishermen take Sundays off which makes Mondays a no-go day for the fish market.
ASK THE LOCAL If you’re visiting from out of town, ask the locals where they buy their fish – sometimes you’ll find great fish stores in unexpected side streets, rather than at the harbour itself. Local intel will point you in the right direction.