No fish? No fuss

For many in the Caribbean, the season of Lent and Easter is a time to enjoy fish and other seafood. A recent oil spill in south-west Trinidad was bad news not only for the environment, but also for fish-loving Trinis. But there are other ways to observe a meatless diet for Lent, as Franka Philip explains

Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

For Christians, the practice of eating fish on Fridays dates back to the earliest days of the church. And the forty days of Lent, the season of repentance and self-denial before Easter, is a time when many Christians (and some non-Christians) eat fish regularly as part of their diet. My mother, a staunch Roman Catholic, would assiduously buy, season, and prepare fish every Friday in Lent. For Easter week, she would buy a whole fish, usually kingfish, for a special Good Friday meal.

This column was originally supposed to be about having a fantastic fish and seafood spread for Easter. But this year I suspect a lot of people in Trinidad will face great difficulty in sticking to this tradition.

In December 2013, a series of oil spills off the south-west coast of Trinidad spread crude oil along the coast, covering beaches, mangroves, and killing tons of sea life. The disaster has thrown the entire fishing industry into turmoil. It was heartbreaking to see fisherfolk on television holding up oil-covered fish, crabs, and oysters, while they appealed to the government to compensate them for the loss of their livelihoods.

The prospects for the environment are gloomy, with experts saying some of the damage done to the ecosystem is irreparable. Many suggest that the fish and seafood stocks in the Gulf of Paria will take years to recover.

And months later the knock-on effect can still be seen at Trinidad’s fishmongers and supermarkets, with fresh fish retailing at astronomical prices. In recent years, the trend has been for fresh fish to be more expensive at Easter, because of the heavily increased demand. Kingfish, the most sought-after, has in the recent past retailed at between US$5 and $6 per pound, but fishmongers have warned consumers to expect prices as high as US$10.

When I visited the markets at the start of the year, the effects of the oil spills had just begun to bite. I heard people complain about the cost of their favourite fish, and looked at how they instead chose the less attractive varieties. So instead of kingfish or carite, they’d go for cro-cro and other types of white fish. Some even bought the much-maligned catfish as a replacement for shark.

I checked out a couple of places that sold frozen imported fish, and they reported an increased demand — and, of course, with higher demand came higher prices. On the radio talk shows, people were complaining, but some consumers said they would still buy fresh fish, because it was a tradition they could not break.

As a non-Christian and former vegetarian, I found the discussions interesting, but I also know there are many alternatives to fish at Easter time. Instead of fresh or even frozen fish, salted fish (bacalao, as the Spanish call it), is a fantastic option. The best salted fish is salted cod, but with cod stocks dwindling, pollock has emerged as a popular substitute. There is very little hard work involved in preparing salted fish — all you need to do, after an overnight soak to remove the excess salt, is shred the fish. After this, it can be cooked down with a vibrant tomato sauce and paired with ground provisions, rice, or hefty dumplings.

On occasion, I flip the script and prepare an Indian meal for Easter. And the showpiece is always homemade paneer. As British Asian chef Anjum Anand describes it, “paneer is home-made, unsalted, white cheese. It has a fresh farmer’s-cheese-like quality, and a dense, crumbly texture that works wonderfully with the spices of India. It is full of virtues; it is a great source of protein, packed with vitamins and minerals, and so tasty that even hardened carnivores find it hard to pass up a well-made paneer dish.”

You make paneer by adding food acid like lemon juice, vinegar, or yogurt to hot milk, to separate the curds from the whey. Then you drain the curds in muslin or cheesecloth, and press out the excess water. The resulting paneer is shaped into blocks, then dipped in chilled water for two or three hours to firm up the texture.

Because paneer is relatively “bland,” it’s extremely easy to spice up. I’ve found it works best with flavourful curried vegetables that have been seasoned with fragrant spices like ginger, chili, fenugreek (methi), cumin, and coriander, and cooked down with coconut milk and good vegetable stock.

Another meatless option is tofu, a commonly used ingredient in Asian cooking. Like paneer, tofu is quite “bland,” which means it’s perfect for pairing with strong flavours. Nowadays, you can purchase tofu in the supermarket or from Chinese shops. And it’s not limited to Chinese or Thai dishes. I’ve used it in classic pasta dishes like cannelloni and lasagne — blending the tofu in a food processor and seasoning it with herbs like basil and parsley.

Traditionalists might find it difficult to move away from fish at Easter, but considering the budget-busting price, these alternatives — which are much cheaper — are certainly worth exploring. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how filling they are, and by the end of the meal you may wonder what the fuss about fish at Easter was all about.

But spare a thought for Trinidad’s fisherfolk, who are still suffering from the loss of their earnings. It may be hard now, but we must play our role by purchasing local fish when the stocks are replenished.