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Getting Sassi with kingklip and shrimps

Panfried kingklip with a shrimp cream sauce

Is it its name that makes us think of kingklip as the king of South African fish? Is it like being called Elvis? Is it like being born Michael Jackson with feet that start shufflling to Billie Jean even as the baby’s head appears?

You’re alive. You’re a kingklip. And you rule.

Not that anyone with half a brain would choose to be born a kingklip any more. They are just too moreish. Too much in demand. I’d sooner be a galjoen, a musselcracker or a rockcod. Any fish on the Sassi red list, in fact.

At fishy dinner parties, do some of the fish boast about what it’s like to be on the red list – conserved, protected, guarded by flinty-eyed humans so that your stocks can replenish – while other guests on the green list (eat as many as you like) try to disappear behind their napkins?

Is there a pescatorial school of snobbery about these new levels of fishy society? The really scaly end where no self-respecting fish would be seen dead – mostly because they probably soon will be, if not eaten virtually alive (Japanese fish, in particular, are wary of this); and the fresh-as-a-gill end where the members group in a snooty hush feeling sorry for the unbridled masses?

A kingklip, on the Sassi list, is in the orange zone, which is better than being in the green zone (anyone can eat you) and more so in the red zone (no one can eat you but you do feel a tad neglected and unwanted). You were once as desirable as a mermaid draped on a towel on the beach. Now you’re as vital as footprints washing away in the tide.

The Sassi list indicates which types of fish in our sea waters are to be left untouched while they regain former populations (red), which kinds for various reasons give cause for concern (orange) and which are so plentiful in the sea that restaurants, among others, are advised to choose these for their menus and daily specials (green).

It must be devastatingly humbling for a kingklip, so proud and noble, to be relegated to orange status. Much as one doesn’t want to be eaten, there must be a certain status in being the king of the pescatorian jungle, and knowing it. A lion doesn’t want to be poached but surely enjoys the status of its desirability for the big American game hunters who would like to chop your head off and mount it on the wall above the yellowwood bar between the rifle cabinet and the picture of Dubya.

But there is still some solace to be had in the knowledge that, caught under the right circumstances and perhaps in particular waters, your leonine fish species is still ordered by well-heeled humans in finie dining establishments and that you still retain, in some measure, that Special of the Day stature that your parents and grandparents always told you would be your heritage one day.

So, having bought one’s fillet of kingklip from the fishery that has acquired it from the correct sources after it has been raised and caught under satisfactory conditions, what to do with it? The answer: as little as possible. Kingklip is one of those things that has all the texture it needs, all the flavour you want, and need only be cooked very simply and served without too much hoopla.

Having said that (as is my wont), I do like prawns, or shrimp, with kingklip. And any fish dish deserves a decent sauce. When buying fish, I ask for it to be filleted but I ask to keep the bones and head to make an “instant” fish stock, or fumé, by plopping these into a saucepan with cold water, chopped onion, celery, bay leaf and a few peppercorns, and boiling down until about a quarter of the liquid remains. Strain this into another pot and reduce again until there is only a small, thickish amount left at the bottom of the pot. Add a goodly quantity of dry white wine and reduce again, at which point I like to add yet more of the same wine plus a small glass of something else, perhaps a sweet wine, a sherry, a clear liqueur (creamy ones are not a good idea) and reducing once more. Finally, I add cream and let it simmer very gently while all the gorgeous flavours merge into the cream and it thickens and turns a very pale caramel. That, with seasoning, makes a great sauce for very many fish dishes.

For kingklip I cooked for British friends recently, I panfried kingklip fillets (from the thick end of the fillet, there’s no point in the narrow end, which is best put to use in that stock you made earlier) in olive oil and butter, skin side down in a flat cast-iron pan, finding the courage not to touch the fillets until almost cooked through, to prevent them falling apart, then turning onto the other side for only a minute or two.

Fish is much better slightly underdone in the middle, and if you are one of those who still argues against this, please try to adapt as with time you are bound to appreciate the difference. I don’t mean raw, Daisy, just less than unpleasantly dry. It’s a borderline thing.

For the sauce, I added precooked shrimps, drained and dried on kitchen towel, to the reduction, heated through and served.

Treating a side of kingklip with respect, and honouring it with a fine sauce and a garnish of many baby prawns, is the least one could do for such a fine fellow.

First published in Weekend Argus winter 2011

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