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Why don't we like fish?

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Fiona Beckett Fiona Beckett | 11:25 UK time, Thursday, 22 March 2012

For an island nation it's weird that we're not more enthusiastic about fish. Goodness knows our broadcasters try hard enough. Programmes are made on fish cookery from exotic locations. Celebrity chefs Rick Stein, Mitch Tonks and, more recently, Nathan Outlaw have devoted whole books to it. It's healthy. It's quick to cook. Yet according to the powers that be at the BBC website "we rarely see any fish dishes beyond fish pies in our top searches".

The Irish food and drink promotional body Bord Bia, which has recently undertaken research into attitudes to fish, suggests some answers − apparently we think fish is expensive, perishable, smelly and difficult to eat. But is that really the case?

Apart from the last one − yes, fish on the bone can be daunting − it's hard to see any justification for this, particularly as the majority of fish comes filleted these days.  OK, some fish − and shellfish − are pricey but no more so than prime cuts of meat − and frozen fish is very good value. Most fish is prepared in such a way that you barely have to handle it and has a 3-4 day shelf life. It shouldn't smell at all.

For many people of course there's no rhyme or reason behind their dislike − it's more a question of shuddering at the sheer idea of fish.  I have two friends (both male) who simply won't touch it. (Actually one's coming round under my relentless bullying and has discovered he actually quite likes it. I've been less successful with my youngest son, another card-carrying fishphobe − apart from fresh tuna, seared like steak.)

Others who say they don't like fish will happily eat fish fingers, tinned tuna and salmon fishcakes which I remember Antony Worrall Thompson once saying he could never take off his menu. As if they don't really count as fish.
So what can we do to bring the anti-fish brigade round? What puts you off it and what dishes might tempt you to have another go? Saturday Kitchen regular Nathan Outlaw, who cooks in a two Michelin starred restaurant on the Cornish coast reckons 'anything coated with crumbs' such as sole goujons is a winner. "The schoolkids I work with will even eat oysters if they're dipped in breadcrumbs and deep-fried."

Spiced mackerel with horseradish potatoes

Mackerel: cheap, sustainable, healthy and delicious - even without breadcrumbs.

Prawn cocktail? Thai crab cakes? Barbecued fish in a spicy marinade? There must be something fishy that would win you round. Or, if you're already a fish fan, how have you managed to persuade your friends and family to eat fish?


  • Comment number 1.

    I love fish, and I'd eat it every day if possible, but I rarely have it at all. For me it's a combination of price and ease of purchase - or the lack of it. I live in a rural area, ironically an ex-fishing village right on the coast. Most of the small grocers nearby don't stock anything other than frozen breaded haddock - bleurgh. For me it's the fish equivalent of eating mystery meat, not to mention I'm intolerant to wheat (breadcrumbs).

    We have a michelin star restaurant as well as two hotels nearby, all of which see fish as a delicacy and charge accordingly. Plain old haddock and chips seems to have worked its way up the price scale, and anything more interesting such as sea bass, salmon, sole or shellfish is so expensive that it is still cheaper to buy a prime steak. I have also noticed that most restaurants serve fish as if the customers are on a diet. Even if it's tasty, a miserable shrivelled fillet for top money is not something I'll rush out for.

    On the positive side, I've noticed freezer stores doing a lot more interesting fish these days and if I get a chance, I'll certainly stock up.

  • Comment number 2.

    I love fish but agree its not a cheap option. Stocking up the freezer with various fillets helps a lot, and the family also like tinned and pickled fish. Nothing beats a fillet of fresh mackerel served with new potatoes by the Cornish coast though!

  • Comment number 3.

    We do like fish - to a degree. Its OK food if a bit bland and boring. Much more important is the fatal damage fishing is doing to the marine environment. We need to stop all fishing as soon as possible, starting with the great industrial pelagic fleet. You have heard of "Save the Dolphin" now let us have "Save the Tuna"

  • Comment number 4.

    I think some people are quite naturally fish resistant - I have a friend whose parents & siblings eat fish, so she was brought up round it, but who cannot stand the smell of any fish or seafood, she just gags, so there seems to be something approaching an intolerance there

    But she's in the minority - I love fish, this is slightly surprising as my parents were never keen, having been brought up in the Midlands pre-refrigeration, when fish was not a good option unless you actually liked it gamey. it's taking a long time to get over that resitance, especially as cod, haddock, tuna, bream, bass are all pricey now, so you aren't going to cook them for people who won't like them, and most people don't think beyond these (pollock, mackerel, gurnard, grey mullet etc)

    I eat quite a lot of fish - one reason is that I an mainly cooking for one and a portion of frozen fish is a handy standby - I do buy fresh wet fish (and salt and smoked fish) too, but in a week night, it's always going to be from the freezer, I wish I could buy more ready-frozen fish that wasn't mucked about with crumbs, batter, or boil-in-the -bag sauces - there's even a range called "Simply Fish" NONE of which is without added ingredients

  • Comment number 5.

    "I wish I could buy more ready-frozen fish that wasn't mucked about with crumbs, batter, or boil-in-the -bag sauces"

    I totally agree, Stokey Sue. Larger supermarkets are better - you can usually find cheap prawns and even bags of basic white fish which make a decent fish pie or fish cakes.

    It must infuriating when you can't buy fish when you live right on the coast, Gorbstein. That's not true everywhere - I know you can get some pretty good deals from the fishermen's huts at Aldeburgh and along the Suffolk coast.

    There are also a number of online suppliers who will send fish direct. It might be worth banding together with a few fellow fish-lovers to get a box sent which you can then divide up and store in the freezer?

  • Comment number 6.

    I agree with some of your comments about why people don't like fish, but I think a lot of them are passed down through families rather than personal experience themselves. Friends of mine don't eat seafood because their parent's never did. And let's not forget the Queen Mother choking on the fish bone in 1982, I can't believe people still use this as an excuse. I have found through my work that people don't have the confidence to cook seafood, so they need simple recipes to give them confidence to spend the money on this vital protein.

    At 38wks pregnant my midwife can't believe how good my iron levels, etc are she says they are better than most non pregnant women, I eat a lot of seafood & obviously it does us good as I can vouch for. I buy from a good fishmonger and there are no bones at all.

    I urge you all to try at least a kedgeree or a fish goujons. Kids love it and it's not expensive and really is tasty & a mega easy week night meal. Give it a go!

  • Comment number 7.

    Someone already said, and I wish too that we were able to buy/chose more fresh fish from the counter - and I mean the whole fish so we can check its freshness. One thing that puts me off from buying it from the supermarket its the way that it is presented. As a fillet we are never able to see its freshness - supermarkets in other countries have them fresh and in one piece so the client can witness its freshness (or not!). when buying you just need to tell them how you want it and it will be done at your specification... why don't we have this here?? This leaves me with the choice of better off with the frozen despite the variety not being that much (cod, halibut, mackerel salmon, and not much more). Its a shame, as it is a much healthier option and should be widely available from early everyone!

  • Comment number 8.

    I love fish.....but have taken a recent decision to stop eating it unless I can be 100% sure it has been sourced responsibley. But that I mean line caught locally only. I do have the advantage of living by the coast, but I think that the dwinerling fish stock is a is a major issue that the whole of the UK needs to think about before we face yet another environmental disater. I hope the BBC will be a responsible broadcaster and really highlight this issue, and perhaps even stop encouraging the nation to buy even more.

  • Comment number 9.

    We didn't use to eat much fish, although my whole family likes it - it's just too expensive. However, I took on fishing a few years ago, when we moved to Plymouth - now we eat all I catch, which is not too much but enough for my small family.

  • Comment number 10.

    Fish needn't be too expensive, the fishmonger in Norwich market was selling farmed sea bass at £3.95 for a good sized fish, enough for one person and 1/2 the price of a rump steak. Ideal way to cook is to get the fishmonger to clean and descale the fish, heat up the barbecue, brush the fish and barbecue with olive oil, season the fish inside and out, stuff the cavity with a healthy sprig of rosemary and then grill for 4 minutes each side. Remove from the grill, squeeze a little lemon over the crisp skin and serve with French fries and lemon and olive oil spinach. Very simple and quick; perfect for an early spring barbeque.

  • Comment number 11.

    "Fish needn't be too expensive, the fishmonger in Norwich market was selling farmed sea bass at £3.95 for a good sized fish, enough for one person"

    £3.95 for one portion. That would make for an expensive meal in my house.

  • Comment number 12.

    I'd happily eat more fish if only it were easier to get decent fresh stuff. I live in central Guildford but there isn't a fishmonger in the town centre, which I find quite incredible. I have to get in a car and drive several miles instead.

    I think most people are put off by
    1. the short shelf life
    2. the bones
    3. the fact that takes a little more effort to cook than say a steak or sausages.

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 14.

    There used to be a decent fishmongers in Cranleigh, but that's probably 6 or 7 miles from Guildford. The farm shop at Secrett's garden centre at Milford have a cracking wet fish bar and there's a smashing fishmonger in West Byfleet. Long walk from Guildford, though! Nothing in Woking, though - I live in the village of St Johns on the outskirts of the town. Such a shame. Waitrose have an excellent fish bar but it would be lovely to have a 'proper' fishmonger. We have a cracking butcher on the Hermitage, though!

  • Comment number 15.

    My children all ate fish until they began going to school. There they heard other children saying how 'yucky' it was, and they began to resist. It became a struggle until I had a great idea- I always served them fish after their weekly swimming lesson. They came in SO hungry. I always prepared dinner ahead (as far as was practical) , so they were fed quickly. Apart from a few quizzical " Mum, how come we always have fish on swimming day?" enquiries, they all cleared their plates and before they knew it, had acquired a good habit. Knife skills came later. Shellfish was easier, being a feature of sunny days outdoors. A favourite dessert was always accompanied by lashings of praise. Success!

  • Comment number 16.

    I also didn't really like fish when I was young, but I've started to eat it recently as I'm following HCG Diet Plan.

    Well, it actually doesn't doesn't as bad as I always viewed it to be. Maybe it's because of the rough texture that fish meat gives when you chew on it, and the thought of having to work on the bones puts me off as well.

    But I've learned to savor its taste recently, though it's mainly on raw fish, namely sashimi derived from the Japanese, such as raw salmon and raw tuna. Although the idea of raw fish puts off a lot of consumers, the taste of raw fish is in a completely different league than any kind of meat you can ever find. It's so chewy, soft and smooth, and I think it's one of the healthiest choices than factory-processed fillet, and deep-fried fish. Maybe you can consider adding raw fish into your diet too! :D

  • Comment number 17.

    Fish smells out the whole house for days after cooking; no matter whether it's fileted there are always bones and it isn't suitably filling enough for a main meal.

    None of these issues relate to a nice steak.

  • Comment number 18.

    I've was offered seafood from childhood and love it. (Used to have the fried clams at Howard Johnsons, in America, every night on road trips with my parents) My sons can be so so with fish sometimes but absolutely love sushi. My youngest (11) will want to go sushi for his birthday next week. He loves squid.
    When they object to fish it is usually because I cooked it badly or they just "aren't in the mood" (an excuse not exclusively for fish) I have inconsistant cooking ability and seafood, though we love it, can escape my ability even for my tastes (squid & sardines especially). My husband only started eating fish when he discovered it cooked by someone other than his mother.
    Fish chowders are good.
    If fish smells out your kitchen you are doing something seriously wrong. Be it not having a good extractor fan to overcooking it with too much fat to not putting the bones in the compost/foodwaste bucket from your council soon enough. (Ours has a good seal and if it threatens to smell the bag goes into the outside collection bucket) Good fish doesn't smell anything but good.
    I do worry about the fish industry though. There may be no fish in the sea soon. How come we don't have fish ponds like there used to be in monastaries & big houses? Fresh fish on the doorstep.

  • Comment number 19.

    I find it fascinating that raw fish should be less offputting than cooked @Phanatomic and @Aran, particularly to kids but you're right. Lots of kids, especially girls, seem to like sushi.

    And one up to you, Catherine, for your fish-on-a-swimming day strategy. Sure lots of people reading this will give that a go!

  • Comment number 20.

    I am a fisherman. The price we get for our fish must reflect record prices for fuel and political decisions which squeeze us to the point of bankruptcy. Hopefully we will get back to some normality soon and people will get fresh fish at affordable prices.

  • Comment number 21.

    Too many of the comments are from the righteous who like fish. It is totally unhelpful for you to bang on about how you like fish on a topic about why some of us don't like it.
    I don't like it. I can't stand the smell nor the taste. But (other people's) fish and seafood often does look appealing.
    Because there is no smell and no taste, I do like battered cod from the local chippy (although it's a pity they are obliged to serve soggy chips). I can also eat fish that is disguised as something else - like the skate in peppercorns with hollandaise that I ate at Rick Stein's (in company of family fish eaters).
    Why can't I stand fish? I've no idea. When I was little I quite liked "yellow fish" and kippers, but as I got older I went off it all. My parents and my sisters all loved fish. One of my daughters (30+) likes and the other isn't keen. My influence?
    Maybe I'm going to be the one "in the right" in the near future, as fish stocks are depleted by those of you who are mad on it.

  • Comment number 22.

    It's not easy to find a balance between the issues of sustainability (let's eat less) and health (let's eat more). But it's not hard to see the primary importance of educating ourselves about the implications of commercial fishing practices, quotas and the effect of pollution on dwindling fish stocks. On the most basic level we need to be aware of cause and effect. felicity's blog: A Celtic Ritual Worth Remembering

  • Comment number 23.

    Agree with newmikeman about different tastes in families. I have always offered my kids fish but as they have grown up my daughters still love all kind of fish but my son only likes the fish finger, fish cake, cod in batter type of option and hates all shellfish with a vengeance!

  • Comment number 24.

    I think they're just trying to suggest what might win non-fish-eaters round @newmikeman but take your point. I think not eating fish probably troubles other people more than the fish-haters themselves

  • Comment number 25.

    I think they're just trying to suggest what might win non-fish-eaters round @newmikeman but take your point. I think not eating fish probably troubles other people more than the fish-haters themselves

    Especialy when on holiday - if i go to the coast I want to eat most of my meals in the best fish restaurant around - a bit tricky with a companion who can't stand the smell


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