Sunbeamchips- Costi

Australians’ love affair with seafood continues unabated, with more and more restaurants, cafes, function caterers and takeaway businesses making it the centrepiece of the menu. Even the traditional Christmas turkey is now sharing the stage with seafood buffets which have become a key component of festive season fare.

And while fish and chips and other deep-fried delights remain popular with diners, there has certainly been a move away from the old-school presentation style of heavy batter towards lighter, healthier options.

“We started out many years ago with battered fish and chips, but there’s now a huge demand for healthier food and we love to cater for it,” says Chris Micallef of Costi’s Fish and Chips, which operates seven stores across the Sydney CBD, four under the Costi’s name and three branded as Catch 22.

“Gradually we’ve added grilled fish, grilled calamari, octopus and squid to the menu, and along with that has come the option for the customer to order brown rice instead of chips, or a quinoa and grain salad to go with the meal. Now in our Barangaroo store we’ve introduced poke, which is the Hawaiian equivalent of sashimi, a raw fish salad. The shift towards health is massive and has changed our whole business.”

Chris adds there are many more varieties of fish on their menu today, which is being driven by customer demand. “With so many cooking shows on TV today, a lot of people are much more educated about the different varieties of fish and different ways we can cook them. Ten years ago, octopus was something that most Australians didn’t want to eat – now we’re paying $30 to $40 a kilo for it and it’s the same with other fish. Twenty years ago nobody was eating flathead, and today it’s regarded as one of the tastiest fish you can get. So customer expectations have certainly changed and we have to keep ahead of the trends.”

Such is the demand for seafood that domestic suppliers simply can’t produce enough to go around, and hence more and more seafood is being imported. “I think we’ll see a lot more within the next two to three years,” Chris acknowledges. “There’s nothing wrong with imported seafood – without it nearly every operator would go broke. It’s just about educating the public about what is and isn’t good in imported seafood, and I think that’s going to play a very big role within our industry.”

With deep fried seafood still popular on the menu, particularly in the takeaway market, foodservice professionals have also had to respond to changing consumer expectations regarding the type of oil they fry in. While driven by increased health awareness, this is also about ensuring attractive product presentation, as Chris explains: “In the old days, people would typically buy fish and chips at the beachfront and sit down on the sand to eat, and the fat didn’t get a chance to solidify in the box. But today we have stores in food courts and commercial towers and customers often will buy their seafood, take it away and walk for five or ten minutes before sitting down to eat it. And of course there’s nothing worse than opening your takeaway box and seeing congealed fat! But with today’s quality oils like Formula 40, which we use, you don’t get that problem.”

According to Cheryl Lauk of Peerless Foods, which markets the Formula 40 brands, the most important consideration for any food business that does a lot of deep frying is to start with a quality oil and then manage it properly.

“Some cheap imported oils are coming into the marketplace and foodservice operators are purchasing them, only to realise that the quality is inferior – they’re only lasting a day and then having to be thrown out. It seems cheap at first but you don’t get the value in the long term.”

She adds the main concern for most foodservice operators is still fry life, flavour and performance.

And whichever oil you choose, it’s vital to look after it correctly to ensure optimal results. Common mistakes like frying at too high a temperature, overloading the fryer, not washing and cleaning it thoroughly and not replenishing the oil frequently enough can all adversely impact the quality of your food.

It’s also essential to keep the fryer well skimmed, straining off food residues regularly, and to check your fryer thermostat regularly to ensure it’s giving an accurate reading.