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Ten or twelve years ago, when we were vacationing in Hawaii, we ate at a restaurant in Lahaina, Maui. The food was excellent , the service even better, and we went there again. My wife ordered the same fish dish she had enjoyed the previous day. As she placed her order, she asked the waiter what kind of fish it was. This chap was not as experienced as the one we had had earlier. Giving her a stare of blank incomprehension, he replied bemusedly ” Fish is … fish. “

I remember this incident every time we go to the Asian supermarket to buy fish. Mainstream supermarkets have mostly stopped selling fresh whole  fish. They usually have pre-packaged salmon and flounder fillets and shrimp, and bags of clams, mussels and , sometimes oysters. It is only the Asian stores that sell whole fish as well as fillets cut to order.I love to look at the display of the different types of fish and to try and guess what they are. At H-Mart, the Korean supermarket chain, all the fish on display are neatly labeled. No need for guessing. However, H-Mart is further away from our house and we usually wind up at a Chinese supermarket which is close by. The fish counter here is just as extensive and almost as well laid out as at H-Mart, but there are no labels. Asking the counter clerks about a particular fish is useless. All I get is a shake of the head and ” No English, No English.”

Some of the fish I know from the times I’ve gone fishing. Thus I am familiar with flounder and bluefish and trout. Salmon, which is usually sold as steaks or fillets, is easily identified too by its distinctive vivid orange flesh. Red snapper is a snap , pomfret, pompano and kingfish too. Almost everything else is a mystery. When I do go to H. Mart, I try to remember what the different species look like but the next trip to the Chinese fish market leaves me as mystified as ever. Isn’t this grouper? And that.. isn’t it sea bass ?

Making fish names even more difficult to remember is the fact that several are members of the same family but have different names. Kingfish, which we love to have dusted with coarsely ground spiced rice flour, is really king mackerel.( The 40 pound wahoo that my brother-in-law landed while on a fishing trip in the Virgin Islands is also a species of mackerel, but is not a type generally available in U.S. fish markets). Cod has as many as 200 species , including five main commercial types: Atlantic cod, haddock, pollock, hake and whiting. I’d often seen pollock on the list of ingredients on packages of fish sticks and breaded fish fillets without realizing that it was a type of cod. There’s also another type, ling or lingcod to give it its full name, that I have caught at the Jersey shore. As if all this is not enough , there is a freshwater cod which goes by the name of burbot.
Bass is another omnibus term for a different varieties of fish. There’s striped bass, largemouth bass and smallmouth bass but also weakfish, red drum and grouper. On the other hand, Chilean sea bass , highly prized for it’s taste and for the ease with which it can be grilled, is not a bass at all but a Patagonian toothfish.

Fish also go by different names in different countries. What we know as flounder, the English call plaice. Flounder, by the way, is an interesting fish. It is a flatfish that is plentiful near the Jersey shore and I’ve fished for it with varying success. One of my former neighbors also used to go fishing and he once knocked on my door and presented me with three large flat fish that I thought were flounder. He corrected me , telling me they were fluke. They differ from flounder in that they always swim right side up; their lower side is light colored, their upper side mottled brown and gray. Also , unlike flounder. they have both eyes on the same side. Who knew?

Perhaps the waiter in Lahaina had it right . Fish is … fish.  

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Contentment

I have just finished watching Stefano’s Cooking Paradiso, an Australian cooking show that is now available on Hulu. In the eight part series, chef and restaurateur Stefano di Pieri  cooks Italian dishes with an Australian twist. He showcases the produce of the Sunraysia/ Mallee region and takes around his favorite haunts near his hometown of Mildura on the Murray River. He visits family farms, vineyards, orange groves, and  a houseboat and spends a lot of his time cooking for friends and family and putt-putting around in his skiff on the Murray. The dishes he prepares ( cod on risotto, eggplant parmigiana, rabbit terrine , home-style wonton soup etc) are interesting but what I really enjoy are the glimpses we get of Stefano and his lifestyle. He is so relaxed , so warm and so engaging, so happy in what he does that I wish I could be in his shoes or, failing that, a guest at one of his get togethers on the banks of the Murray. Watching him, one gets the feeling that this is a man who is perfectly content with who he is and what he does, that there is no place he would rather be. I suspect that this is what draws most viewers to his show.

How much do we really need? What must we absolutely have if we  are to be happy ? In the documentary Happy , a rickshaw puller who makes a precarious living on the streets of Calcutta says that he is perfectly happy when he returns home in the evening and his little son calls him ” Baba!” Looking at his beaming face as he holds his son in his arms , we have no doubt that he is telling the truth.

Along time ago, I read a short story by Guy de Maupassant about a well-born girl who  elopes with her lover, a shepherd, and happily spends the rest of her life with him in his hut , remote and far away from civilization. The title of the story was Bliss and I still remember it fifty years later, so strong was the impression it made on me.

The Roman statesman, Cicero, wanted a bit more. In his words, no one can be unhappy who has a library and a garden. I understand where is coming from but these two items imply solitude. I would want something with more human interaction. I’m more comfortable with the ideas of a close friend who told me that all we need are the three F’s. … Food , Family and Friends.

Stefano de Pieri would agree with him.

 

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