If you’ve ever walked along the waterfront of a port or harbour you’ve probably caught a glimpse of these relatively big, flat-headed, grey fish slowly grazing away at clumps of floating seagrass or moss. If you’re familiar with the flathead grey mullet (Mugil cephalus) you’ve probably also heard that it’s a dirty fish that lives and feeds on the dirt normally found inside closed harbours. In truth, the mullet’s infamy is quite unfounded and it is actually a delicious fish, highly prized in many other parts of the world.
The grey mullet can be found almost everywhere from California to Chile, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the South African coast, the Black Sea and even as far East as Japan and down to Australia. It can live up to 16 years in the wild and grow up to a whole metre in length.
It mainly feeds on seagrass, algae, sea lettuce and organic detritus but is also known to eat some crustaceans, invertebrates and molluscs.
Grey mullet is a highly prized and sought-after fish in parts of the Mediterranean as well as many Asian countries. It is normally caught with trammel nets, beach seines, hook and line techniques and a variety of other methods.
It has been farmed for centuries in the Mediterranean, South East Asia, Taiwan, Japan and Hawaii. In Italy, it is farmed using a method called vallicoltura where breeding happens within closed lagoons, valleys or wetlands.
It is sold fresh, salted and even fermented as is a delicacy in Egypt and other Arab countries. There is also quite a demand for fresh or smoked mullet roe.
In Malta, the flathead grey mullet is known simply as mulett. However, the larger members of the species are referred to as kaplat and weigh anywhere between 1.5 to 5 kg.
It is normally caught by amateur or hobby fishers using a variety of methods from cages, hook and line methods to floating hooks baited with bread. The larger and slower mullet can also be caught using a froxna (a hand-held spear).
Strangely enough, there is little to no demand for the grey mullet in Malta so it is not normally targetted by professional fishers. When it is caught, it’s usually in trammel nets (pariti) as bycatch.
The grey mullet’s bad reputation probably dates back to a few decades ago before the Maltese islands had a proper sewage system. Untreated drainage would be pumped into the sea inside ports like Marsaxlokk, Marsaskala and Xemxija.
People would see the mullet swimming around the dirty waters feeding on the fertilised seagrass and seaweed and assume that it’s feeding on sewage. From this point on, the fish fell out of favour with the Maltese people and has never really regained popularity since.
But speak to many amateur or sports fishers and they’ll tell you that the grey mullet has a delicious earthy and meaty flavour due to their largely herbivorous diet and many people head out fishing specifically for mulett or kaplat.
The methods used to catch grey mullet in Malta are quite low-impact, particularly those that use hook and line techniques. Its populations in Maltese waters are quite healthy so it’s a good choice if you want to keep sustainability in mind when buying your seafood.
Next time you go to your local fishmonger, ask them to consider stocking some fresh grey mullet. If you do manage to get your hands on some and want to know what to do with them, check out these delicious recipes by chef Stephen La Rosa:
Grey mullet tartare