Wednesday, June 8, 2011

FISH OF BRAZIL - Cavala (King Mackerel or Cavalla)

Anyone with just a bit of familiarity with the Portuguese language might logically think that the word cavala means mare - you know, a female horse. After all, the word for horse in Portuguese is cavalo, and normally words that end in -o are masculine and those that end in -a are feminine. So if horse (masculine) is cavalo, probably horse (feminine) is cavala. Logical, but wrong.

Cavala isn't a mare at all (égua is the world for mare) but rather one of the most common eating fish in Brazil. In earlier times, under its English names of king mackerel or cavalla, it was also a common eating fish in North America, but today is less commonly consumed there than in the past. Cavala is a very oily fish, with high levels of beneficial omega-3 oils. Only sardines and herring have higher levels of omega-3 oil per gram of flesh. However, it is that oil that has most likely caused mackerel to lose its popularity.

One of the supposed reason for the diminishing popularity of mackerel in North America and Europe is the perception that the fish has a strong, oily, some-would-say-fishy, taste. It's true that mackerel's high levels of omega-3 oils bring with them a stronger flavor, as oil carries taste more than does flesh, but if properly cooked and prepared, mackerel doesn't have to be overly-fishy. One way to eliminate this strong flavor is to buy only the very freshest mackerel, as the fishy flavor develops with age.

Cavala's popularity hasn't diminished in Brazil as it has in other world markets, probably due to the fact that there are still enormous stocks in Brazilian waters, and consequently the price is very low. Cavala is almost always the least expensive fish per kilo in Brazilian fish markets. Also, Brazilians tend not to shy away from strong-tasting fish, and value such fish rather than avoid them.

In an age of global over-fishing, the cavala/mackerel fishery remains one of the few that is sustainable at current rates of harvest. Vancouver Aquarium's internationally-recognized Ocean Wise program includes cavala/king mackerel in its list of sustainable fisheries.

In the next few posts, Flavors of Brazil will feature some typical Brazilian recipes for cooking cavala/king mackerel. If you can find mackerel at your supermarket or fishmongers, do give it a try. It's economical, very healthy, and can be eaten with a clear ecological conscience. And if cooked right, as the Brazilians know very well, it's also delicious.

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