What exactly is whiting? It’s a question that has perplexed more than one writer on the subject. It doesn’t help that the word “whiting,” as NOAA Fisheries notes, “is often used for various species of hake in the genus Merluccius,” including silver hake, the most common “whiting” on the market. It also doesn’t help that residents of Baltimore refer to whiting as “lake trout,” even though there is a fish called lake trout found in cold-water lakes, according to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, Maine. Whiting is essentially a thin, codlike fish with flaky white flesh.
Perhaps Oji Abbott, chef and owner of Oohhs & Aahhs on U Street, has the most apt description of the fish. “Whiting is the hot dog of the sea,” he says. “A hot dog is generally pretty cheap. If you’re going to get some fish, [whiting] is the cheapest thing you’re going to get.”
Plus, the D.C. native adds, a stack of fried whiting fillets on bread “fills you up. It puts you where you need to be, and you don’t spend all your money. You can go on about your way.”
As any good chef will tell you, the key to fried whiting is to catch it fresh from the fryer. Because the fillets are thin, and thinly coated, they tend to lose moisture fast. Fifteen minutes after its hot-oil bath, “that fish is gone,” says Michael DuBose, executive chef for Southwest Catering at Westminster Presbyterian Church. “I’d rather you stand in line for a couple of minutes to get a hot piece of fish than to come to [no] line and get a cold piece of fish.”
Such a fish, it seems, would be a natural fit for more upmarket restaurants, where heat lamps are frowned on and cooking to order is the norm. But fried whiting has not made much of a dent in mainstream dining in Washington, perhaps in part because seafood chefs and restaurateurs are largely unfamiliar with the fish. That includes Jeff Black, (BlackSalt, Pearl Dive Oyster Palace), who says he hasn’t “had a whole lot of exposure to whiting.”
Not that his lack of experience would prevent Black from trying to introduce a chef-driven whiting to diners. He’s a firm believer in steering customers away from overfished species and toward sustainable fish, such as whiting wild-caught in the North Atlantic. But it’s hard for restaurateurs to swim against the current of popular taste. “When the dust settles, the dining public gets what they want,” Black says. “That’s capitalism.”
It might help if whiting had a name change, although Black knows all too well that gimmicky marketing-oriented handles can lead to environmental catastrophe, such as when the Patagonian toothfish was renamed Chilean sea bass and suffered from massive overfishing.
“Maybe changing the name of whiting to ‘oceanic white bass’ ” would help, he says. “If you come up with some sexy name, it may sell like crazy.”
Clarification: It may sell like crazy in the restaurants of “official” Washington.