Alexander Sharavyev, general director of the Siberian Supply Company Ltd:
There are burbots in both northern and southern rivers. Ours, the northern one, is fattier and tastier, and the southern one is drier – maybe that’s why it’s not popular at all. The northern ones are actively caught in March and April, when the smelt comes: the burbot feeds on it.
Nalim is a cod fish and its liver is just as useful as cod’s, but more fatty. Cod liver has been promoted since Soviet times, and for good reason – cod has always been caught in far greater numbers. The burbot, on the other hand, is little caught. Firstly, the species is scarce. Secondly, it does not store well. And liver is better to eat fresh – well, or you need to glaze and vacuumize or canned. And if you keep it in the freezer for a long time, it gets bitter.
It is difficult to deliver northern fish to Moscow, this is because it has to be frozen immediately after being caught, and not all fishing crews have access to refrigerated containers where fish is frozen at minus twenty degrees; in general, shock freezing is too expensive. And since burbot is considered to be a cheap fish in the North, it is not profitable for anyone. The noble white fish – nelma or whitefish – is better: they will give more money for them. And the demand for burbot is also, alas, low; the fishermen cannot sell it, so they don’t catch it. More precisely, they catch it, but for themselves: I, for instance, use it for semi-finished products – I add it to fish mince for cutlets. In general, burbot fillets can be fried and baked just like any river fish.
Olga Syutkina, historian of Russian cuisine, co-author of The Unconventional History of Russian Cuisine and The Unconventional History of Russian Food:
Nalim is not often used in Russian cuisine, but its history would be incomplete without this fish.
Nalim burbot soup is mentioned in the mid-century Domostroy. Men, or menek, was the name given to it at that time. At the beginning of the century Vasily Levshin in his book “Russian cooking” wrote: “If you can have burbot livers, put them on top of minced meat, it gives kulebyaka excellent taste”. I tried it: it tastes amazing. You can hardly taste the liver in the stuffing, but the pie becomes very juicy and fragrant. Levshin also wrote that burbot goes in Lenten soups and sauces, but “the liver is especially respected”.
They are respected for their fatness and size. Burbot is a fatty fish in principle, but the feeling is that all the fat is concentrated in the liver. The same goes for the more common cod liver, but the cod liver is denser, while the burbot’s is fuzzy, pâté-like, more flavourful and, to me, more tasty. The burbot meat tastes similar to catfish, though burbot is actually a cod fish. Cod is drier, but it and burbot have a similar meat consistency: when pressed, it breaks up into large slices.
For all its virtues, burbot is a rare guest in public catering. It is not to be found in restaurant guides. Ignaty Radetsky, in his monumental work on the arrangement of St. Petersburg cuisine, gives a single recipe – sterlet fish soup with burbot livers. However, there are a lot of dishes with smelt, vendace or roach. It is difficult to say why burbot is so inconvenient. I can only guess. Firstly, it is a very seasonal fish and it is caught near St. Petersburg only in December. Secondly, it is difficult to catch – it hides under snags. Also burbot are individuals. That is, they do not go in packs. So do pike and catfish, but at least they are bred in artificial ponds. La Marée is also said to offer burbot of a standard size and weight, but I haven’t tried them yet.
You have to admit, burbot can smell like slime. If a catfish can be cleaned of mucus and rubbed with salt, the same thing will not work with burbot. Finally, burbots are often caught with helminths and one must carefully examine the liver to make sure there are no blisters on it. They probably get infected because they lie in the mud and eat carrion. To be honest, the first time I tasted good burbot was relatively recently, and it came from some rivers in the Perm region.
In terms of consumption, burbot is a common river fish and should be treated accordingly: cooked into soups, fried and baked. In the 19th century, burbot liver was put in sautés and pâtés, in side dishes and matlots. The fatty meat was mainly used for pies.
I really like burbot pies. I usually want to make a pie for a lot of guests rather than two or three people; I can’t get burbot in such large quantities, so I use pikeperch with it: it’s affordable and also absorbs flavours well and looks beautiful. I take yeast or puff pastry, put slices of boiled potatoes on it, put fish slices on top, then thinly sliced liver (after baking there will be practically no trace of it), sprinkle with greenery, cover with the second layer of pastry (be sure to make a hole for the steam to come out). The head, tails and bones go in my soup.
The burbot meat can also be baked or made into a matlote (I cook burbot with red wine, just like carp). And the liver can be added to fish pâtés, or simply put on the side dish. The only thing: fried burbot liver would be too greasy – I suggest baking it.