Friday, February 28, 2003
Clearing up miso
butterfish and black cod
In last Sunday's Star-Bulletin, I read a story about an
plan on the Big Island that said, "In a little over two years, a
favorite island delicacy -- miso butterfish -- may be available from
fresh, cold-water black cod."
Since I grew up in the hinterlands, the sentence
confused me. Is miso butterfish another name for black cod, or is it a
dish made from black cod? And what's black cod?
First, about miso butterfish: It's a recipe. Miso is a
paste made from soybeans and rice. This Japanese staple is common in
Hawaii's and Japan's grocery stores.
Recipes for miso marinade vary but generally call for
miso, sugar, ginger and rice wine stirred together. Some people marinate
salmon, ahi and aku in this mixture, but the favorite is black cod, also
known as butterfish.
It's possible to buy butterfish already miso-marinated,
but at $10 to $11 a pound, it's more economical to prepare your own. This
requires planning because the fish must soak one to two days, depending
upon the recipe. After that, grill, bake or broil it.
As for black cod, it's not a cod. It's a sablefish
(scientific name Anaplopoma fimbria) belonging not to the codfish family,
but to another all its own.
Sablefish have black skin and get their name from the
sable, a North Asian marten with black fur. Apparently the sablefish
resembles a cod in shape, and that's where the name black cod comes from.
Sablefish live only in the cold waters of the Pacific
Ocean ranging from California to Alaska, across the Bering Sea to Siberia
and down the Kamchatka coast to Japan.
The biggest sablefish grow up to 40 inches long and
weigh about 40 pounds, but the average catch is about 2 feet long and 10
pounds. Sablefish have exceptionally long lives. Some have been estimated
to be 90 years old.
Japanese anglers once fished for sablefish in Alaskan
and British Columbian waters. In the 1970s, however, the United States and
Canada enacted 200-mile laws, banning all foreign fishing vessels within
that distance of land.
The fish still get to Japan, though. The United States
and Canada export most of their sablefish catch there, where people prize
it for sushi.
People call sablefish butterfish because of its high
oil content, but it's not a butterfish. The real butterfish is a bony
little thing weighing just over a pound. This food fish (Peprilus
triacanthus) grows fast and lives for only about three years. Butterfish
range from Florida to Newfoundland, but most are caught in New England
To defeat their many predators, butterfish often swim
among swarms of jellyfish.
If you live in Britain, a butterfish is something else
entirely. It's a 9-inch-long marine eel that lives along all British
coasts. In the United States these eels are called rock eels or rock
gunnels. The scientific name is Pholis gunnellus.
If you mention rock eels to a Brit, however, he'll
think you mean dogfish, which in the United States are small sharks, but
in Britain are ... Well, there's no end to it.
Even though these fish names are confusing, I think
I've got it. When I see miso butterfish at my grocery store now, I'll know
it's not a real butterfish, but a marinated black cod, which is really a
And now that I know how to cook it, I'll even buy one.