Bream are found in shallow tropical and sub-tropical waters all over the world; their family, Sparidae, is large, with over 125 species. Commonly called Sea Bream to distinguish them from the European freshwater Bream, they’re also known as porgies in North America. A number of species are found in the Mediterranean, with Dentex (Dentex dentex) and Gilt-head Bream (Sparus aurata) being particularly popular on menus and in recipes in Italy, Spain, and southern France. Gilt-head Bream is generally known by a name that refers to the golden markings on its head, such as ‘Dorada’ in Spanish and ‘Orata’ in Italian, while Bream’s English name may come from the Old English ‘breme’, meaning fierce or energetic.
Six Breams are commonly found in Australian waters. The most popular are:
Snapper (Chrysophrys auratus), which, despite its name, is actually a Bream, is caught from Townsville, south to the central Western Australian coast (including in Bass Strait and around Tasmania). It has pinkish skin with pale blue spots and a distinctive forehead hump. Although it isn’t related to the ‘true’ Tropical Snappers or Sea Perches (Lutjanidae family) such as Goldband Snapper, the ‘Snapper’ name has been retained as it is one of Australia’s most widely known fish and has gone by this name for over 100 years.
Yellowfin Bream (Acanthopagrus australis) is endemic to Australia and is found along the eastern coast from far north Queensland to Victoria, though it’s mainly caught south of Hervey Bay.
Tarwhine (Rhabdosargus sarba) is found from far north Queensland to Victoria as well as along the southwestern coast from Albany to Exmouth. It’s often caught with Yellowfin Bream, from which it can be distinguished by the yellow lines along its rows of scales.
Other Breams occasionally seen in retail shops or harvested recreationally in various parts of Australia include:
Frypan Bream (Argyrops spinifer) is mainly caught off the north-western coast of Australia, although it is found north from the NSW-Queensland border to the central coast of Western Australia and is caught in sections of the Great Barrier Reef. Black Bream (Acanthopagrus butcheri) is endemic to Australia and is usually found in brackish or freshwater in southern Australia, though it does appear in salt water in Western Australia. It’s mainly caught in Victoria, especially Gippsland Lakes where the fishery goes back to the late 1800s, and is also common off southern Western Australia. Pikey Bream (Acanthopagrus berda) is found from the mid-coast of Queensland north to the Northern Territory and is a small part of coastal net-fisheries in those areas.
Snapper is sold whole (gilled and gutted), in cutlet, steak and fillet forms. Other Breams are generally sold whole (gilled and gutted), only occasionally as fillets, usually already skinned. In whole fish look for lustrous skin, firm flesh, and a pleasant, fresh sea smell. In fillets, look for firm, lustrous, moist flesh without any brown markings or oozing water and with a pleasant fresh sea smell. Flesh colour varies from the creamy pink of Snapper to the pinker flesh of Yellowfin Bream, Tarwhine, and Pikey Bream all of which may have some dark veins showing. Black Bream’s flesh is slightly greyish and Frypan Bream’s has a yellowish tint.
Make sure whole fish is scaled, gutted and cleaned thoroughly as soon as possible (completely remove the lining of the abdominal cavity and the white fat along the abdominal wall). Wrap whole fish and fillets in plastic wrap or place in an airtight container. Refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze whole fish for up to 6 months, and fillets for up to 3 months, below -18ºC.
Cooking & Serving
Breams are best steamed, poached, pan-fried, baked, grilled or barbecued. They’re a good plate-sized fish cooked whole and the bones (especially of snapper) make excellent stock. Snapper has a more delicate flavour than other Breams and a slightly firmer flesh that breaks into large flakes, though larger fish tend to have slightly softer texture. The edible skin can be left on. All Breams, including Snapper, have a mild, sweet flavour, and are moist and relatively low in oil. Those which live in estuaries and rivers, notably Tarwhine and Black Bream, can have a slightly coarser, muddy or weedy flavour, which can be balanced by cooking with soy sauce, ginger and other Asian spices.