Tiptoe through the tuna…

John McNally | VOLUME 21, ISSUE 1
The oysters being shucked are from St. Helens, Tasmania.
The Sydney Fish Market is one of the harbour city’s prize attractions and is also a source of fine seafood and dining delights.

The pithy corruption of the Tiny Tim classic that heads this piece is not as silly as it sounds when surrounded by two or three thousand crates of seafood at 5:30 in the morning. Welcome to the auction floor of the Sydney Fish Market in Blackwattle Bay, Sydney, where more than 15,000 tonnes of seafood is traded annually.

It is the largest market of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere and with more than 100 species available daily it offers seafood lovers the ultimate experience. Visitors to the Sydney Fish Market can watch the daily auction, learn to cook their next catch and, of course, sample some of the wide variety of fresh seafood on offer.

It is little wonder that the market has become a huge tourist attraction and intrinsic part of the harbour city; a part that has evolved over the decades. After all, flogging fish on the foreshores has been an on-going activity since the white fellas first arrived.

On any given trading day, around 55 tonnes of everything piscatorial go under the hammer, or to be more exact, the finger. In this heady world of electronics, even buying fish is done on a touch pad. And the auction is Dutch, which means the price goes progressively down instead of up. It is this system which is used in Holland for selling flowers, hence the ‘tiptoe’ reference.

The speed at which things happen at the Sydney Fish Market (SFM) is mesmerising. The auctioneer sets the price of a lot – that is, one or more crates of a particular product – at around $3 above the assumed market price. The giant clocks begin spinning, winding down at a dollar per revolution until one of the 150-odd buyers hits a touch pad, stops the clock and becomes the proud new owner of the lot. Around 1000 crates are sold per hour.

By the time the city office towers start to hum, the auction hall is empty, scrubbed clean and silent. The fleet of small trucks bearing some of the ocean’s finest is heading home to retail outlets across the country. At 3:00pm, a new shipment of seafood arrives on the floor for tomorrow’s auction, when the whole amazing process takes place all over again.

With the trucks long gone, the seafood fanciers of Sydney descend for their pick of the catch, to be devoured there or taken home for a family feast or backyard barbie.

The SFM is also home to the Sydney Seafood School or SSS. This is not a classroom of crustaceans eager for knowledge, as the name might suggest, but rather a place where people can discover the finer points of preparing seafood for the table.

It began 16 years ago as one of those ‘never-know-unless-you-give-it-a-go’ ideas. After all, the concept of having a wholesale market, retail outlet and cooking school all at the same address seemed pretty radical. Similar schools have since cropped up in Billingsgate, Auckland, Capetown and Newcastle.

As the SFM has evolved, so too has the school. Under the command of Roberta Muir, the list of chefs conducting classes reads like a foodie’s wish list. These are the gods of Oz tucker – their restaurants are booked out so far in advance that you may have to buy one of their cookbooks instead.

At the SSS you can not only watch them cook, but they’ll watch you do the same. And you get to enjoy all of this washed down with some of Australia’s finest wines. And that’s called schoolwork?

For details on the Sydney Seafood School, contact Roberta Muir, tel: (02) 9004 1140 or mobile: 0412 159 656. Email: robertam@sydneyfishmarket.com.au.

The fish market also has several retail outlets selling produce to the public and from what we saw, they do a roaring trade. Like the crew at Claudio’s for instance. Greg Imisides and George Costi run Claudio’s, with the help of Tony Tsikelas, who has worked at the markets for nearly 30 years.

With so many years in the business, and the best seafood selection in the nation to choose from, we thought we’d find out what their favourite piscatorial treats are.

“John Dory, sand whiting or swordfish. Flounder… there’s a lot of nice fish.”

What about eating fish raw?

“You can eat any fish raw, as long as it’s fresh. Snapper, yellowfin, trevally, mackeral… any fish, as long as it’s fresh.”

What about mullet?

“No way! Wouldn’t eat mullet.”

And speaking of eating, we thought we’d round out our visit to the Sydney Fish Market by consulting an institution within an institution – De Costi Seafoods, the market’s biggest wholesaler and retailer. Founded by George and Andrea De Costi in 1974, De Costi Seafoods offers a huge range of quality fresh seafood and even has a host of handy hints on how to prepare various dishes in the form of free recipe cards. All recipes are tried and proven and we can even vouch for most of the following after having spoiled our taste buds in a session of rigorous product evaluations – all for the benefit of our loyal readers.

What a selfless lot we are!

We invite you to conduct your own taste tests by experimenting with the following succulent seafood delights…

Oyster with ginger and lime

12 oysters, shucked, in their shells

½ teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger zest and juice of 2 limes

2 teaspoons Thai fish sauce

1 tablespoon coriander (cilantro) leaves, chopped

2 teaspoons sugar

lime wedges

Nestle the opened oysters on a bed of crushed ice or rock salt on a large platter to keep them steady.

Mix the ginger, lime zest and juice, fish sauce, coriander and sugar together. Drizzle a little of the sauce into each oyster shell and serve with lime wedges. Serves 2.

Swordfish with bananas

2 tablespoons oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 small green capsicum, sliced pinch of dried chilli flakes

pinch of freshly grated nutmeg 2 tomatoes

2 bananas

4 x 220g swordfish steaks*

250ml (1 cup) coconut milk

coriander leaves, for garnish

Heat the oil in a large, deep frying pan and add the onion. Cook for 5 minutes. Add the capsicum, chilli and nutmeg and cook for a further 3-4 minutes or until the onion and capsicum are soft.

Meanwhile, score a cross in the base of each tomato. Cover with boiling water for 30 seconds, and then plunge into cold water. Drain and peel the skin away from the cross. Cut each one into quarters. Peel the bananas and cut into chunks on the diagonal.

Place the swordfish steaks in the pan on top of the onions and capsicum and scatter the tomato quarters and banana over the top. Pour the coconut milk into the pan and season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook gently for 15 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through (it should feel firm when it is ready). Garnish with coriander leaves. Serves 4.

* You may substitute tuna, marlin or mahi-mahi.

Salmon cutlets with sweet cucumber dressing

2 small Lebanese(short)cucumbers, peeled, deseeded and finely diced

1 red onion, finely chopped

1 red chilli, finely chopped

2 tablespoons pickled ginger, shredded

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

½ teaspoon sesame oil

4 salmon cutlets*

1 sheet toasted nori (dried seaweed), cut into thin strips

Combine the cucumber, onion, chilli, ginger, rice vinegar and sesame oil in a bowl, cover and stand at room temperature while you cook the salmon cutlets.

Preheat a barbecue flatplate and lightly brush it with oil. Cook the salmon on the barbecue for about 2 minutes on each side, or until cooked as desired. Be careful to not overcook the fish or it will be dry – it should be still just pink in the centre.

Serve the salmon topped with the cucumber dressing and sprinkle with strips of toasted nori. Serve with steamed rice. Serves 4.

* You can substitute ocean trout or blue-eye cod cutlets for the salmon cutlets.

Warm prawn, rocket and feta salad

4 spring onions (scallions), chopped

4 Roma (plum) tomatoes, chopped

1 red capsicum, chopped

400g tin chickpeas, drained

1 tablespoon dill, chopped

3 tablespoons finely shredded basil

60ml (¼ cup) extra virgin olive oil

60g butter

1 kg prawns(uncooked), peeled and deveined, tailsintact

2 small red chillies, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, crushed

2 tablespoons lemon juice

300g rocket (argula)

150g feta cheese

Place the spring onion, tomato, capsicum, chickpeas, dill and shredded basil in a large bowl and toss together well.

Heat the oil and butter in a large frying pan or wok. Add the prawns and cook, stirring over high heat for 3 minutes. Add the chilli and garlic and continue cooking for 2 minutes, or until the prawns turn pink. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the lemon juice.

Arrange the rocket leaves on a large serving platter, top with the tomato and chickpea mixture, then the prawn mixture. Crumble the feta cheese over the top and serve. Serves 6.

Honey and lime prawn souvlaki with salsa

32 prawns, peeled and deveined, tails intact

3 tablespoons clear runny honey

1 small red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

zest and juice of 2 limes

1 large garlic clove, crushed

2cm piece of fresh ginger, finely grated

1 tablespoon chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves

8 bamboo skewers


2 tomatoes

1 small red, just-ripe mango, diced

½ small red onion, diced

1 small red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped zest and juice of 1 lime

2 tablespoons coriander (cilantro) leaves, chopped

Put the prawns in a non-metallic dish. Whisk the honey, chilli, olive oil, lime zest and juice, garlic, ginger and coriander together, then pour over the prawns. Toss well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, turning occasionally. Meanwhile, soak the bamboo skewers in water for 30 minutes to ensure they don’t burn whilst cooking.

For the salsa, score a cross in the base of each tomato. Cover with boiling water for 30 seconds, and then plunge into cold water. Peel the skin away from the cross. Dice the tomatoes, discarding the cores and saving any juice. Combine with the mango, red onion, chilli, lime zest and juice and coriander.

Preheat a char grill or a barbecue flatplate to High. Thread four prawns onto each skewer. Cook for 4 minutes, turning halfway through cooking. Baste regularly with remaining marinade. The prawns will turn pink and be lightly browned on both sides. Serve the kebabs with salsa and steamed rice. Serves 4.

Salt and pepper squid

1kg squid tubes, halved lengthways

250ml (1 cup) lemon juice

250g (2 cups) cornflour

1 ½ tablespoons salt

1 tablespoon ground white pepper

2 teaspoons caster (superfine) sugar

4 egg whites, lightly beaten

oil, for deep-frying

lemon wedges

coriander (cilantro) leaves

Open out the squid tubes, wash and pat dry. Lay on a chopping board with the inside facing upwards. Score a fine diamond pattern on the squid, being careful not to cut all the way through. Cut into pieces about 5 x 3cm. Place in a flat, non-metallic dish and pour the lemon juice over the top. Cover and refrigerate for 15 minutes. Drain and pat dry.

Combine the cornflour, salt, white pepper and sugar in a bowl. Dip the squid into the egg white and then into the flour mixture, shaking off any excess.

Fill a deep fryer or large saucepan one-third full of oil and heat to 180C (350F), or until a small cube of white bread dropped into the oil turns golden in 15 seconds.

Cook squid in batches for 1-2 minutes, or until the flesh turns white and curls. Drain on crumpled paper towels. Serve with lemon wedges and garnish with coriander. Serves 6.

Chermoula snapper

125ml (½ cup) olive oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 tablespoons lemon juice

5 tablespoons finely chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves

¼ teaspoon salt

1kg skinless snapper fillets*

To make the chermoula, combine the olive oil with the garlic, cayenne pepper, paprika, cumin, lemon juice, coriander and salt.

Place the fish fillets skin-side down in a large dish or on a tray. Brush the chermoula over the fish fillets, using up all the mixture, and leave to marinate in the refrigerator for 1-2 hours or overnight, if time permits.

Preheat a char grill or grill. Shake the loose bits of marinade off the fish fillets and place on a foil-lined baking tray. Cook for 7-10 minutes, or until golden on top and cooked through. Season and serve with lemon wedges. Serves 4.

* You can also use red emperor, deep sea bream, blue-eye cod or blue wahoo.

Recipes supplied by De Costi Seafoods. For more recipes, visit: www.decosti.com.au or tel: (02) 9649 7699.