I&J Crispy Battered Hoki & Asian Slaw Simplot

While seafood has always been a popular choice on Australian menus, its market penetration today is all-encompassing. In recent times the seafood buffet has become as popular a choice as the traditional turkey for festive season fare, and the sheer scope of seafood varieties and presentation styles across pubs, clubs, cafes, restaurant and catering operations is breathtaking.

The expectation for more and more seafood presented in accordance with the latest trends is certainly keeping suppliers busy. As Pacific West innovation manager Neil Cane explains, “The challenge for us from a product development perspective is to keep the market supplied with new and exciting seafood options. Chefs are constantly looking to progress what’s on offer, and the younger demographic is going for sushi, sashimi – flavours and presentation styles that are comparatively recent entrants to our market, and miles away from the traditional Western approach.”

To meet the demand, Pacific West is importing sashimi grade tuna to the Australian market. As soon as it’s harvested from the ocean, the fresh tuna is rapidly frozen to minus 40 degrees using the Ultra Low Temperature (ULT) process, which preserves its organic characteristics and ensures optimal quality. The tuna remains at this temperature during processing, transportation, storage and finally distribution. The range is perfect for sashimi and poke – the Hawaiian equivalent of sashimi, with tuna cubes served in soy and ginger marinade with rice accompaniment.

Suppliers are looking ever further afield for more exotic species which restaurateurs can sell at a higher price point. “Sustainability and provenance are the key objectives in product development right now,” Neil tells us. “This is why we’re bringing in products like wild caught prawns from Patagonian Red Prawn Fishery in South America. Seafood which is wild caught and sustainable has been highly sought after by the fine dining sector for some time and this has now filtered down to pubs, clubs and cafes.”

As another example, Neil cites Tristan long line Blue Eye Trevalla, which are wild caught using the long line method at a depth of up to 1200m in the rocky canyons around the island of Tristan da Cuna, the most remote inhabited island in the world and, like Pacific West’s tuna, ULT frozen at minus 40deg and made available to the Australian market in both fillet portions and loins.

This move away from whole fish towards frozen fillet portions with boneless or skinless presentation is putting further pressures on suppliers, as Neil confirms: “Foodservice professionals are increasingly looking for perfectly cut portions – this impacts on the type of fish you can source, as well as the processing.”

Demand is being driven by the benefits to be gained in portion control and pricing. “You get a premium portion for the same price point year round – it’s not subject to seasonal availability or price fluctuations. With a pre-cut portion you have optimal thickness for plate presentation and each fillet is individually frozen once portioned.

“Wild caught fish, which is what most of ours is, is all hand cut to the correct portion sizes and this ensures effective portion control which is very important, especially if you’re plating multiple meals and you need to ensure every customer has the same size fish and it looks the same on the plate. And because these are sold at a consistent price point per portion, the chef or restaurateur is able to accurately determine the cost to profit ratio and can add their markup.”

Today’s seafood is also being presented in contemporary stylings which bear little resemblance to the traditional approach of uniform shapes and a generic batter. Instead the emphasis is to present seafood which looks as though it’s been prepared from scratch in the kitchen, coupled with a move away from heavier coatings towards more spiced and marinated products. Where in the past chefs were using breadcrumbs, today you’re more likely to find the lighter style Japanese panko crumb in use.

Of course presentation styles come and go and what is popular today may be on the way out tomorrow. Beer batter, which proved a big hit some years back, has now lost its novelty and the market is moving on. “Chefs are now looking at seasoned flour, something which is lighter again,” Neil says. “At the same time, they know they can afford to be a little more adventurous in their choice of flavours. Soy and ginger, sweet chilli and herb, lemon pepper – these are all very contemporary flavour profiles.”

At the same time, there is a demand for ‘classic’ flavours when these are presented in an innovative way. An example is Pacific West’s recently launched southern fried barramundi burger – comprising slices of wild caught barramundi encased in a classic southern style batter.

“The trends have shifted,” confirms Scott McDonald of Simplot Australia, which markets an extensive range of both fresh and value-enhanced frozen fish and seafood under the I&J, Captain’s Catch, Topsail and Neptune brands. “The big difference in seafood over the last 10 years is that products have moved away from a mass-manufactured presentation style to a more artisan, hand-cut, natural fillet presentation, and you can see that in our range as well as in a lot of our peers.

“That’s not to say there isn’t still a market for traditional fish portions, but the focus today is more about customising product presentation so that it’s a better fit for purpose. The more contemporary presentation styles, like beer batter or panko crumb, are the trend now but there’s still a role for the old-style presentation too, it all depends on the venue. As the market grows, our expectation is that the more artisan natural products will increase their volume but the core historical products will still be there playing an important role.”

While barramundi, whiting, snapper and salmon are still the big sellers in the market, Scott makes the point that some of the lesser-known New Zealand species, such as hoki, are rapidly gaining a higher profile and growing in popularity with consumers. “Hoki, also known as blue grenadier, is a real success story for us. It comes in a MSC approved 50g fillet portion so you can serve it up as a single piece within a fish taco, which is hugely popular right now, or serve two to three pieces as a fully plated up main. Following on from the success of our 50gm crispy battered hoki, we have recently launched MSC approved 140gm premium battered and 140gm premium fresh bread crumbed, hand-cut natural NZ Hoki fillets.

“Contemporary presentation styles like fish tacos and tortillas are trending high across the spectrum of the market, from entertainment venues like sporting facilities through to the sophisticated upmarket pub or club venue, and products such as the I&J Hoki are perfect for these menus.”

Value-adding – that is, developing fish and seafood products that are easier to use in the kitchen – is another aspect of fish and seafood presentation that’s grown considerably in recent times. “There’s been a lot of evolution not only in various cuts of fish and species, but in the development of different coatings and formats,” Scott says. “Commercial kitchens are looking for labour saving, waste minimisation, pre-prepared products that have a ‘made from scratch’ appearance with consistent premium quality and we have an important role to play in this space, with innovative ‘freezer to plate’ products which deliver solutions that allow chefs to add their own creative twist.”

A further focus is on provenance of seafood and claims made around it, such as wild caught, natural fillet, hand cut, hand dipped, MSC approved and so on. “The claims create the menu story for the end-user to convey,” Scott explains. “I think consumers want to know more about the provenance of what they’re eating today, and the end-user wants to know too because it helps differentiate their menu offering from the competition. Australians love their food and they want to learn a lot more about it – they enjoy learning the story, so it’s just as important for us to communicate that to the end-users as it is for them to tell their customers. This is something we’ve seen much more of in the past five years, with the evolution of detailed menu descriptions that go into the provenance of the food.

“Whether it be a pub, club, caterer or restaurant – venues across the board are looking to step up the fish and seafood offering they have on the menu,” Scott affirms. “Even your traditional pub fish and chips are not necessarily served in a heavy batter any more, rather the move has been to contemporary lighter alternatives like crispy beer batter and speciality crumb. I would describe the trend as truer, fresher, artisan style ingredients, and that’s across all food not just fish and seafood. The chef needs to be proud of what they’re creating – they understand that what they serve their customers reflects on them, and so our products need to exemplify those contemporary customer expectations.”

Scott says that broadly speaking, today’s fish and seafood is more varietal – “the more different flavours, cuts and presentation styles we can bring to market and the less preparation for the end-user, the better. Given today’s high cost of kitchen labour, our job is to make life easier for the foodservice professional. So we aim to provide shortcuts without compromising on quality, which enables them to run a more profitable business.”

As an example Scott cites I&J Potato Spun Prawns – “the potato is curled around the outside of the prawn, outside you have that crispy element and inside is prawn and basa. This can be served as a finger food but you can also plate up and serve several portions as a main. It also sits beautifully in a seafood basket. All the hard work of preparation has already been done for you, it’s simply a matter of plating and serving and the product presents attractively across several menu options and tastes as good as it looks.”

Creating these kinds of innovative menu items is the focus of Simplot’s product development team. “We have an amazing team of chefs working here and full sensory labs so any product that we bring to market goes through a full sensory appraisal first. Our executive chefs have had extensive industry experience and all that expertise goes into helping us create the final product, and they also bring their skills to bear in foodservice specific recipe development. If you visit our website at www.simplotseafoodspecialists.com.au, you’ll find it’s been designed as an educational tool for our end-users – they can learn more about the handling of seafood, from storage tips to how to weigh and moisture test frozen product.”

Scott believes Australians are becoming more adventurous in trying broader varieties of seafood in different formats. “We’re now starting to see different applications of seafood, particularly as meat prices continue to rise. Inevitably fish and seafood will start playing a bigger role on the menu. Rather than just one item on menu or a seafood special, it will increasingly make more economic sense for the outlet to offer a greater selection of seafood.”

Examples of relative newcomers to the pub and club menu include salt and pepper squid – very on trend right now, this has replaced the old school calamari presentation, which Scott describes as a definite step up. He adds that the broader application of seafood on the menu is also driving increased customisation: “The outlet will often design its own condiment, topping or dipping sauce to complement the flavour of the seafood. All these elements, from the garnishes and toppings to how the chefs plate the food, are very important, and we find venues are becoming more adventurous and sophisticated in how they use seafood. Once upon a time the standard condiment was tartare sauce – now we’re seeing flavoured aioli, different kinds of flavoured toppings as opposed to the old school approach. Again this is not confined to seafood but is the case with whatever protein is being served – there’s more variety for the palate.”