You’ll absolutely love ‘minkfish’

Why don’t Canadians eat more of what turns out to be a very fine fish?
Jacob Richler
Vancouver, BC: September 2nd 2011 - Mr.Lingcod gets ready for a busy evening at The Hawksworth Restaurant in Vancouver on September 2nd, 2011. (SIMON HAYTOR for MACLEAN’S MAGAZINE)
You’ll absolutely love ‘minkfish’
Photograph by Simon Hayter

Early one morning on a recent West Coast Fishing Club trip to the Haida Gwaii, I dipped a baited line into the frigid waters with the expectation of an imminent battle with a ripped and angry tayee, as the biggest chinooks are locally known—and instead, promptly reeled in a five-kilogram ling cod. I had never seen one before and it was ghastly, with a huge and hideous head, monstrous pectoral fins and a long, slender, amber-flecked grey body that once on deck writhed like an eel. “You should keep it,” said chef David Hawksworth, who was fishing on the same boat, and went on to explain that from a culinary perspective, if not that of an angler, he often preferred ling cod to salmon. So keep it, I did.

Two days later, back in Toronto with company over for dinner, I pulled the ling cod from the refrigerator. The fish had been cleaned and filleted for the journey home, and sizing it up thus, I could not think of another creature whose aesthetic could be so vastly improved through a simple act of decapitation.

The remaining flesh of the two long fillets was thick, firm and white. While the grey skin still wore its scales, chef Hawksworth had assured me that these were so tiny as to be undetectable on the palate, once cooked—and that is what I call convenient fish design. So I progressed directly to portioning it up, and cooking it.

The skin crisped beautifully in the skillet. While the fish finished cooking in the oven, I steamed some clams in white wine with chopped chorizo and then served the fish in the mix crisp-skin side up. And we all expectantly tucked in.

None of us had ever tasted ling cod before—and at first bite, our impressions were unanimous in their enthusiasm. For the size of the fish, the fibre of its musculature is quite fine, which makes it flaky and delicate. Nonetheless, it is pleasantly firm. While it lacks the fat content of, say, black cod or sea bream, there is still more than enough there to keep it moistly lubricated on the palate. Its flavour is subtle, but pleasing. In short, then, the fish may be a beast, but it has beauty on the fork.

“Definitely, it suffers a little from ugly-red-headed-stepchild syndrome, but it’s a great fish,” Hawksworth confirmed of my impressions, reached by phone at his eponymous restaurant in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia, in Vancouver. “It is very versatile, but giving it a crispy skin is probably the best technique. It goes with a lot of sauces, as long as they have some acidity. Anything from a French butter sauce to a chimichurri.”

I spent the next day puzzling over why we do not eat more of it. For my local fishmonger never stocks it, and I have only ever seen it on menus while on the West Coast. Stumped, I wondered if it was endangered, and turned to the Ocean Wise website, where experts from the Vancouver Aquarium rate fish on their appropriateness for the plate, based on the health of their stocks, methods of fishing and so on. And go figure—long-line and handline-caught ling cod from northern B.C. comes up “Recommended.”

To most of us, that top rating means “eat this one as much as possible while you still can.” So the ling cod’s problem was suddenly obvious. Like the Chinese gooseberry, which in the 1960s became an international hit when it was renamed the kiwi fruit, and the Patagonian toothfish, which in the 1980s became such a success under its new moniker, Chilean sea bass, that it was endangered within the decade, the unfairly neglected Ophiodon elongatus needs a sexy new name.

Thinking of its smoothness on the palate, I first came up with “silkfish”—but as people associate silk with worms, I grudgingly nixed that. Next I thought of the huge recent success of its deep-water neighbour, the Alaskan black cod—which of course is no more a true cod than the ling cod (which is not a ling, either). Amber cod seemed a possibility. And then suddenly I had it: in B.C., black cod also goes by the more enticing moniker of sablefish. And there is only one thing women like as much as sable—and that’s mink. So there you have it: “minkfish.” Look for it soon on a menu near you and eat it while you can.