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A Fish Called Melva – Much Maligned

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I remember buying and successfully cooking a fish similar to melva in Asia. There was so much of it I remember making a pie, a proper pie with pastry above and below. And then I moved to the Middle East, where the fish hardly ever seemed to be for sale and consequently I forgot what I used to do with it!

Melva is the Spanish name for a fish that looks like a small tuna. It’s a blue fish, an oily fish, which goes by other names, such as frigate mackerel. The characteristic that puts off many people when they prepare it for the first time is that its raw flesh is exceptionally bloody. So when I was once again presented with the opportunity to buy a melva via the Mercadona fish counter, I decided to look up my old notes and get it right this time. Last time I bought one I cooked it in a conventional manner and made a complete mess of it. Fish blood, if cooked in the usual way, turns bitter, hence there are few fish stocks based on blue fish. When I searched the internet for some help, I found the much maligned melva described as both cheap and to be avoided. But there is a simple method for transforming it into an absolutely superb ingredient.

I was determined to rediscover my former method. When I see a way of saving a few euros I am always persistent. This time the result was so good I am resolved to write a whole cookbook on things to do with your melva. And this is the start of the project.

First of all prepare your fish. My latest example was just shy of one kilo and cost me three euros. Here are the steps.

One: Remove the head and discard it. There’s no useful stock here.

Two: Clean the fish and remove the fins.

Three: This is where the process differs from most fish. Wash the fish thoroughly in a bowl of cold water. There will be lumps of coagulated blood along the backbone. Scrape them off. Break the internal cavity membrane and run your thumb gently along the backbone to dislodge as much of the blood as possible. It takes only a minute or two. Discard the water and fill the bowl again with fresh cold water.

Four: Fillet the fish in the usual way. Discard the backbone.

Five: Put the fillets on a board skin down and run your finger along the middle of each to locate the pin bones. Pull these out, along with any ribs that are left, any bony part of the gill flap and – especially – the bony part just to the rear of the pectoral fins.

Six: Skin the fillets in the usual way and cut each into two along the pin bone line. Wash these four pieces again in cold water.

Seven: Cut the fish into chunks and put them in a bowl with a sprinkling of salt and the juice of a lemon. Give them a stir and refrigerate for a couple of hours.

Eight: And here is where this preparation is quite different from other methods. Drain the fish and deep fry it for a minute or so in hot oil. Prior to cooking the fish has become greyish. After this short cooking, it has turned off-white with brown edges.

You now have about eight hundred grams of fish that can be used as an ingredient. It can be used as it is in salads, for instance, but here are the three things I did with my melva.

A melva mayo sandwich sounds trivial. It is. It is also excellent. Just add a lettuce leaf and a slice or two of tomato. Spread some mayonnaise on your bread and slice one of the chunks of fish to complete the sandwich.

A melva fish curry is almost as good as one made with kingfish – and costs much less! Sauté a chopped medium onion with two or three three centimetres of chopped ginger and four or fish crushed cloves of garlic. When these are soft, add your own favourite curry mix to whatever level of spiciness you like, but do put in plenty of paprika for the colour. Add a couple of chopped tomatoes and cook this mix until the tomatoes fall to a sauce. Then turn the heat down and add some whipped yoghurt, or coconut milk if you want a Malay-style dish. Let the sauce cook until the top looks oily and then add a few chunks of the melva. Heat the fish through, check the seasoning and add some chopped green herbs if you want.

Seafood soup noodles become a main dish with a couple of chunks of melva. Take on packet of Asian-style seafood noodles. Yes, the pre-packed varieties work perfectly well. Make up the soup for the noodles in the usual way with the seasoning provided. Add the noodles and loosen them. Add a few sliced chunks of melva and then a handful of finely chopped lettuce leaves. And that’s it! It’s even more substantial if you add an egg at the start to make an egg flower soup, and the dish is even better with the assistance of a chopped dried chilli – but it will be spicy! And of course you can experiment with a drop of oyster sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce, etc. Any leafy green can be used instead of the lettuce, but something tougher should be added at the start and given a minute on simmer before proceeding.

So there was my melva. One fish did seven full servings and cost just three euros. And the dishes themselves – especially the curry – were superb.


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