Flat Jokes of Flatfish

Flat Jokes of Flatfish

Hardly anyone can be surprised with fried fish in a coastal town. Well, except for two options: you can get a fried frozen hake or a walleye pollock shelved from last year, or a fresh turbot. The second option is far more pleasant, obviously.

Cooking turbot is easy. You just need to go to the Privoz Market early in the morning, bargain for a while and choose the fish with both its eyes turned towards you at once. By the way, I have found out in a recent conversation that some people don't know that in early years flatfishes are no different from other fishes in terms of form and eye position: they are not flat, they swim in the water instead of lying with one side flat on the seabed and have eyes one on each side of their body. Then flatfishes take habitual form: their body flattens and one eye migrates to the other side.

It can take hours to explain the difference between a Black Sea turbot and a Black Sea flounder, but there is also a quick explanation: turbots are big and flounders are small. But if we decide to go into details after all, it can be added that Black Sea turbot is a big flatfish living offshore, while flounders prefer coastal waters and enter limans sometimes. There are other differences, but there is no need in bothering one's head with them.

Flounders and other small flatfishes can be literally caught with hands, when there are releases of hydrogen sulphide deep in the Black Sea. Water becomes ice-cold and gets darker, and semi-conscious fishes swim very close to surf line and sometimes even beach themselves. If you are not afraid of leg cramps in cold water, then you are sure to get a biggish bucket of fish just with a fork as a harpoon and a 'two-blows-eight-holes' approach as your strategy.

The fish, known as turbot in most European countries and in the southern part of the Black Sea, is called kalkan in our region. The tastiest turbots are caught in the Mediterranean Sea and near the French Atlantic coast. The fish cost around €30 per kilo in Brittany, far exceeding the prices for Odessa kalkan at the Privoz Market. Interestingly, in France they have a tradition to cook or fry turbot as a whole piece only and even invented a special turbotiere for this.

At the fish stalls of the Privoz Market, choose the most charming fishmonger and fish (by the way, in France fishmongers are called poissonniers). At home, gut and gill the fish you bought: don't worry, it won't take much time. The first thing to do is to cut its head. Here is a tip: it is easier to separate a head from a body, if you turn the fish with its light-coloured part (belly) up. This is the way to distinguish a darker part with guts that you need to remove. So, you cut off the head, then remove the guts and wash the fish. Then cut off fins and tail. To remove skin and spikes or not is debatable. Depends on your preferences. Odessites tend to leave skin and spikes intact. Fried skin, however, has a strong and specific odour, which is sometimes disagreeable for persons with sensitive noses. However, for me this is yet another Odessa summer smell. Spikes become softer after frying, and the surrounding fat is very tasty (by the way, flounders have no spikes).

All that is left after gutting and gilling is to cut the fish into pieces, add salt and pepper, and put aside for 30 minutes. After that breadcrumb the pieces and fry in a covered pan over high heat, adding as much oil as needed. Then turn over and fry without covering until golden brown. Serve with lemon. That's it.

I am sure, that in blind tasting Odessa fried kalkan will easily outmatch Mediterranean turbot.

Written for Forbes.

October 2012.