No fish fingers in the canteen thank you

Fish is a popular canteen food, but to offer the customers attractive fish dishes, we need to know what they want. A recently completed survey shows that we want to have pieces of fish that show its structure, served with healthy vegetables.

Senior sensory researcher Marit Rødbotten of Nofima Mat has recently been leading group interviews, in the form of focus group tests, with both canteen chefs and canteen customers in Oslo and Stavanger. All those who took part in the survey eat fish in the canteen at least once a week.

The aim of the survey has been to find out more about the canteen chefs’ and consumers’ attitudes to fish and fish dishes: what criteria are important for the customers’ choice in the canteen and do they have any particular taste or quality requirements in the choice of ingredients?

What the canteen chefs want

The results from the different group interviews were similar. All the canteen chefs agree that fish as a raw material has many positive properties and they can report that fish is popular with customers – especially those who are concerned about a healthy diet. A tempting fish dish combines a whole piece of fish with lots of fresh vegetables to provide colour and make the dish healthy. It must also be possible to make the dish so as to serve many portions and to give customers a clear picture of what the dish contains.

Salmon dishes sell better than both pollack and cod, perhaps because salmon is perceived as being more exclusive. Fish is cheaper than comparable meat dishes and addresses a large target group, including some of those who do not eat meat, such as vegetarians and new citizens. According to the canteen chefs, the biggest drawback is that fish as a raw material is more sensitive than meat and requires more careful and demanding handling.

When it comes to handling methods, the chefs prefer fresh fish to frozen, although block frozen cod was also well received. Sous vide is not a popular method, but some kinds of fish, such as pollack, are suitable for microwave preparation.

The customers agree

Conclusions from the canteen users were also uniform. What they like best are straightforward, whole pieces of fish. The consumers choose fish because it is a good and healthy alternative, and their perception is that mixed products are not as healthy as whole pieces of fish. Fish also gives a pleasant feeling of fullness and the possibilities for varying the canteen menu are greater than with hot meat dishes. A tempting appearance and/or exciting accompaniments could make customers choose fish more often.

Some drawbacks mentioned by consumers are that fried fish can sometimes be dry and tasteless and that fish dishes get cold faster than meat ones. The customers’ first choice among fish was wolf fish, followed by salmon, trout and halibut and they prefer to have complete fish dishes, served with suitable vegetables that are also healthy and enhance the flavour of the fish itself. Fish dishes that include vegetables in the dish itself seem tempting; it is important for a healthy meal that the vegetables form an essential part, together with the fish.

First phase of an innovative new fish project

The focus group survey was carried out by senior sensory researcher Marit Rødbotten and consultant Susanne Ekman (both of Nofima Mat). It is a vital first stage of the InnovaFish project, the aim of which is to develop attractive new fish dishes. Signals from both chefs and customers that they see fish as an upward trend show that the project has come at just the right time.

The project will include a 3 year doctorate programme for a scholarship holder and the participation of an inter-disciplinary competence group coming from backgrounds in raw materials, processing, gastronomy, sensory research and consumer studies. In addition to the Nofima research institutions, the following are also participating in the project: Aker Seafoods Båtsfjord AS, Vikomar AS, Domstein Enghav, Whitefish Qualitech AS, BAMA Industri AS, MicVac AB, FMC FoodTech AB, Medirest Norge AS, Sodexo AS, Gastronomisk Institutt, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and Måltidets Hus.

The project is supported by the Research Council of Norway, the Fishery and Aquaculture Industry Research Fund, the Norconserv foundation and the Foundation for Research Levy on Agricultural Products.

Picture: Most of the chefs chose the same dish as the customers when asked to pick out "the most tempting dish" (below) and "the least tempting dish" (above).

Contact: Marit Rødbotten

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