Escolar. Never heard of it?

Bet you have never heard of escolar, or, by its more common name, butter fish, or, by its less common name, oilfish. You’re in good company. Ask fishmongers, fishermen, fishing experts: escolar? Never heard of it.

Escolar etc. is one of the greatest gifts given to the palate by the sea. It is firm and deliciously, yet subtly, flavoured; it melts in the mouth (thus, I guess, the reason for one of its monikers); and it has no bones. My younger daughter, who is something of a trawler for food in our house, took to it like a soprano to ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’.

These fish, according to the CSIRO, grow a bit like a decent soprano — to 300 centimetres — and that’s a pretty big fish. They are always displayed as fillets, but sometimes a designer fish shop will stick the whole fish in all its glory in the shop front, to make you goo and gaa and then slip inside to shop around. You’d get a bit of a fright if you saw escolar in their natural habitat. They drift around the continental shelf from New South Wales through to Western Australia, at depths between 100 metres and 800 metres. No wonder their eyes are said to be ‘phosphorescent’.

The CSIRO says there have been ‘2 or 3 samples caught off Portland’, and regularly has reports of them being landed off the east coast. And here’s the rub: ‘They are never caught in large quantities.’

Which is why most of us have never heard of them. They come as a by-product of gemfish fishing, but there is more bad news here. Limits are being placed on the gemfish catch, so there could be even fewer escolar around town. You can only hope, I suppose.

But whenever they are around, grab them.

There’s one bright side. For some reason or other, escolar is never expensive, although according to its Latin name, ruvettus pretiosus, that may not always have been so. The Latin word pretiosus means costly, precious, of great value. I suppose escolar’s relative cheapness these days has something to do with its size — at the wholesale end — and the fact that so few of us have heard of the fish, much less tasted it, so there is hardly likely to be a rush for it. But now you know, please don’t let escolar pass you by. Sea perch used to be like that, before it became orange roughy.

2 onions, sliced in rings

1 clove garlic, sliced finely

2 stalks of lemon grass, chopped — If you can’t get it fresh, you are almost certain to get it frozen in an Asian supermarket. Don’t bother with the dried variety. You can make this dish without lemon grass, but the difference is quite remarkable.

1 knob of ginger, sliced finely

200ml tin of coconut cream

2-3 hot chillies, depending on your chilli rating

1 cup fish stock if you have it, if not, ½ cup water

handful of coriander

escolar, or any other firm-fleshed fish that has fillets which hold

together and are on the thickish side — about 4 cm — such as flake, — salmon, snapper Half a kilo of escolar fillets will easily serve five people.

a little flour


black pepper

juice of ½ lemon per person

a little butter


Toss the onions and a little oil into a pan, cook very slowly for 20-25 minutes, until they brown and taste sweet. Add the garlic, lemon grass and ginger after about 10 minutes, then the coconut cream and chillies when the onions are done. If you have some fish stock it is a wonderful bonus. Add the stock, or water, and coriander and allow to cook gently for another 5-10 minutes, until the sauce thickens. You must be careful not to leave it too long. It must be of a thick, but pourable consistency, not sticky. Set aside.


Heat your oven to flat out. Prepare the fish. You need to dust the fillets in flour on one side only. I am forever annoyed, in inferior restaurants, at eating fish which have been floured on both sides and put in pans with several other fillets. The result? The flour steams in a pan which is overcrowded, and thus not hot enough, and is never cooked. I’m sure you have done it yourself.


So, heat a little oil in a large pan (one which can go in the oven) and put in the fillets, one at a time. Make sure the pan sizzles when you put in the fish, and then move each fillet about a bit so that it does not stick. You might need to add a little extra oil as you go. When you have all the fish in place and sizzling away, put the pan into the oven. It will take about 10-15 minutes to cook, depending on the size of the fillets. You can test to see if the fish is done by pressing it with your finger. When it’s ready, it doesn’t fight back. You can also, like a cake, test with a knife. Why not?


Set the fish aside in a warm spot while you re-heat the sauce.


You can serve the fish white side up, or crisp, whichever you like. I like it both ways. Sprinkle the fish with a little salt, black pepper and lemon juice, and rub some butter over the top. Serve the sauce separately, or with a little rice, or couscous. If you can’t be bothered making the sauce, sprinkle some fresh herbs — tarragon, chives, or parsley are perfect — over the fish and moisten with a little butter, or virgin olive oil, or a mild vinaigrette.

WINE: The people of Cowra must be happy that it’s producing some lovely chardonnays — something to remember it by other than a prison. The Rothbury Estate’s Cowra Chardonnay is worth a look — it’s rich but has good complexity and depth of flavour.