Consumers Hooked on Unusual Trends in Fish : Mesquite Grilling Is On Its Way Out, but Catfish Is Reeling In the Customers

Times Staff Writer

With fish high on the list of light and healthful foods, grandmother's nagging that fish is food for the brain is now probably starting to make sense. Aside from health reasons, eating fish is on its way up.

The consumer's interest in the unusual and exotic generates trends within the fish mania itself. By now you've probably heard of, or have tried (or are tired of?) Cajun-style blackened redfish, crawfish, sea urchins or uni, smoked salmon, mussels or roe on salad greens and mesquite-grilled fish.

"Mesquite is not quite as in," says Dave Locke, vice president of the Hungry Tiger chain. "People are now going back to the usual grilled or sauteed fish, which we started to offer as alternatives to our mesquite-broiled fish. Although mesquite enhances fish flavor, I find that in some cases, it covers the true good taste of fish."

Catfish Has Survived

What else has the fish market to offer?

Catfish is in. Once considered a poor man's food and abhorred by many because of its fishy odor, catfish has survived all past and existing snobbery. With the interest in regional cooking of the South and the availability due to increased catfish farming, the fish is being rediscovered as wonderfully tasty after all.

Predicted to be the seafood of 1985 and the bargain of the future is albacore, the most delicately flavored of the tunas. Since canned imports have taken over the market and California tuna canneries have shifted their plants overseas, local albacore trollers have to sell their catch to the fresh and frozen markets.

The American seafood consumer can now also look the whole fish in the eye, small or large. Almost everyone else, particularly Asians, have been eating whole fish since as far back as they can remember.

Since New Zealand introduced orange roughy to the U.S. market in 1981 (at half the cost of what it is now), it was smooth sailing for this unfishy fish favored for its snow-white, tender flesh. The fish has a high oil content, but the fat, unlike most fish fat that is metabolized by the human body, is passed right through and is not absorbed in the body. High demand and low availability of orange roughy makes its price relatively high.

John Dory (also called St. Peter's fish), another delicate fish served in expensive restaurants, comes mainly from New Zealand and is still in the high price category because of low supply. It is predicted to remain so in the future.

If you've paid top dollar for turbot in an exclusive restaurant, then you've probably eaten a true turbot, the high-priced European flatfish. The frozen turbot fillets that you can get for less than $3 a pound are not the real thing but are most likely the Greenland or black halibut, which is often called turbot. It is, however, a reasonable and nutritious alternative to the more delicate turbot.

Plenty of Salmon

Good news for salmon fans (the majority of U.S. seafood consumers, it seems): There's plenty of fresh salmon to feed generations to come despite the scramble for fresh catch for increasing sushi and sashimi.

You may not like fish heads but have you ever tasted the cheeks? They're delicious. Halibut cheeks, for instance, have a crablike taste and texture. Cod cheeks and salmon cheeks are also getting recognition. Expect to see more of new and old fish varieties such as herring, eel, Hawaiian wahoo or ono (often called the gourmet mackerel because they look like king mackerel but are more delicately textured, with whiter and flakier flesh).

This summer, the Pacific coast offers a plentiful supply of petrale sole, Dover sole, rex sole, Pacific snapper, flounder, halibut, mackerel, sablefish, sand dabs, sea bass, ling cod, true cod, Pacific perch and yellowtail. Chinook salmon from Northern California and Coho or silver salmon are in good supply as is thresher shark. Sockeye salmon is in limited supply.

From the East Coast, look for monk fish, scrod, dab sole, mussels, clams, oysters and live Maine lobster, sea and bay scallops, Eastern swordfish, haddock, cod, live blue crabs, tile fish, mackerel and squid.

From Florida comes red snapper, and the Great Lakes offer whitefish, lake trout and perch.

Fish of all forms are getting into the scene, such as smoked trout, salmon and catfish, dried salted fish, surimi (or ground pollack) flavored and shaped into pseudo crab, shrimp, scallops and lobster meat.

In fish preparation, another trend in fish dishes is being seen in those with ingredients showing mixed American regional and ethnic influences. With grazing (snacking on small meals about seven or eight times a day) and home videos in current rage, fish chips could very well be the healthy snack of the future.

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