Usually the big food confabs I attend are a drag. Conventions can be boring. Even the sexiest events, like the Aspen Food and Wine Spectacular, can get dull if you go each year. Yesterday I got back from four days at the International Boston Seafood Show and I have to admit I saw some pretty awesome stuff. The seafood world is changing every day as demand for fish and shellfish rises and supply dwindles. The industry is responding by fast-tracking some really cool fish into the mass-market pipeline, and some brand new species are also now available for the first time commercially.
Barramundi is Australia’s version of the perfect everyday eating fish. Mild, white-fleshed, flaky, and super moist, this is one of the best eating fish in the world, and finally there is a domestic supplier coming on line to offer humanely raised, environmentally sound, farm-raised barramundi at prices that make it reasonable for small restaurants and supermarkets to offer this amazing fish that tastes like striped bass. Remember, no one knew what tilapia was ten years ago, and that fish tastes like Styrofoam!
The other great new fish I tasted that you will hear lots about in the coming year is Kona kampachi, a small white-fleshed yellowtail tuna that's similar to hamachi. It's the first fish grown by a sustainable marine-hatch fishery in the open ocean. The stuff is dynamite, raw or cooked, and as with barramundi the skin grills up to a delectable charry crust if you leave it on. The kampachi folks are out of Hawaii, so the west coast restaurants and seafood markets are already into this fish in a big way—ask for both of these fish at your local markets with a loud voice and convince their buyers to bring these products in sooner rather than later. You will be glad you did.
Surprise! The hot new country taking over the seafood world is China. From squid to cobia, tuna to shrimp, the Chinese are figuring out yields and quality control issues quickly when it comes to farming fish and maintaining wild fisheries. Once they figure out the marketing piece we will all be eating Chinese fish for the next thousand years. The government of China is throwing billions of yuan at the fish industry, and it shows. The cobia and shrimp I tasted this year blew away the same products I tried last year, and the Chinese pavilion at the show was the largest booth in the convention center. The American seafood industry is going to need to sharpen its pencils and also differentiate its product, and not rely on government tariffs and trade laws to protect its businesses. Besides, last time I checked, the Chinese control the dollar (based on the mountains of our debt that they own), so getting into a pissing contest with them is pointless. We can compete with anyone in the world when it comes to the business of seafood, but compete is the operative word. Sitting back and expecting the average consumer to buy American farm-raised and wild fish was a fine stratagem when the rest of the competition was either too pricey or less pristine. Today it is neither. The marketplace is truly global.
I did see my friend Tom Douglas, one of the best chefs in the country. His new book, which is all about crab cakes, comes out in May, and it is awesome. Tom is Seattle’s leading culinary light and his restaurants should be on everyone’s must-go list if you are ever in the neighborhood.