It was the 26th of February 1998. I know because it’s written on the chalkboard menu in the photograph; a menu written by my late dear friend Braam Kruger, widely known as Kitchenboy during his cooking years. It’s titled “29 Ways to Love a Swordfish”. I’m standing next to the board in the photo, because this menu was designed just for me. While the swordfish part of the title was a bit of poetic licence — swordfish featured just once — the 29 part was actually true. Twenty-nine tiny courses of fish for dinner. A table was set for me in the full-to-bursting kitchen, and I worked my way through the glorious offerings, while Kitchenboy cooked like a whirling dervish, Steers burger plus brandy-and-Coke nearby. At almost midnight and at course 27, we both called it a day.
The ridiculously grand gesture of that meal is so dear to me. But the memory of it also makes me cringe. That excess. And with fish, of all things. I ate sashimi, tartare, and carpaccio; fish “biltong”, ceviche, and gravadlax. I ate fish smoked, fish simmered, fish in a wonton, and fish steamed. I ate it in four different baked parcels and in three different pan-fries. I ate it as a sort of friandise with grape and chilli sauce. And some of it I didn’t finish.
The ridiculously grand gesture of that meal is so dear to me. But the memory of it also makes me cringe. That excess. And with fish, of all things
Apart from the cringe, there’s just plain shock: the variety of fish we had at our legal disposal then, compared to now — well, it’s like another planet. Though tuna, yellowtail, and snoek featured more than once, hardly another species appeared twice. While there were already soft noises around depleting stocks, and Braam was both conscientious about and knowledgeable on the issue, in 1998 this still left a vast array of fish to be feasted on without qualm. Or so we thought. The ocean was being emptied but we didn’t really get it. And the incredible Sassi (South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative) was still six whole years away.
There were fish on that menu that you’ll likely never see again in a fishmonger (or if you do, an arrest should follow). Ocean fauna has dropped by half over the past 40-odd years. As ocean salinity and temperature changes add even more pressure, should we be taking fish off our plates altogether? One thing’s certain: we need to be informed eaters. In SA there are two easy ways to start: use @wwfsassi as your bible for local choices (say no to orange- and red-listed species), and thoroughly read and cook from Daisy Jones’ still-relevant Star Fish, which has fantastic information and recipes on 10 sustainable options. This way we might still have one small, lovely fish course on our menus in another 21 years.
• Burgener is owner of and chef at The Leopard, 44 Stanley Avenue, Joburg
• From the November edition of Wanted 2019.