John Dory: Unlovely, but Not Unloved

John Dory
John Dory. Tony Robins / Getty Images

John Dory is nothing if not a miracle of evolutionary adaptation.

If ever a creature went out of its way to appear as unappetizing as possible, it's the John Dory. Flat, bony and adorned with lethal spikes, it looks a little bit like a horseshoe that sprouted quills and learned to swim.

But we are not fooled! John Dory is a delicious fish with delicate white flesh and a firm, flaky texture. A saltwater fish, it has a mild, slightly sweet flavor, and this sea creature can be served sautéed, baked, steamed, poached, or even coated in breadcrumbs and fried.

While not found much in the United States, John Dory is popular in the United Kingdom as well as in Australia and New Zealand because it's found in the North Atlantic and also in the cooler parts of the South Pacific. It's comparable to turbot, sole, and billfish.

Contributing to John Dory's odd appearance are the large black dots on its sides, which are thought to be another form of misdirection—predators take the dots for eyes, and attack its meaty midsection instead of its real eyes—giving the John Dory an opportunity to escape.

The false eyes led the John Dory to be referred to sometimes as the St. Peter fish (or versions of that in Italian or French) because of a legend that the black spot on its side represents St. Peter's fingerprints.

Preparing John Dory

If you're fortunate enough to get your hands on a whole John Dory, the first thing you're going to want to do is remove the spines on the top and bottom edges. This will make the fish easier to handle without impaling yourself and is best done with a sturdy pair of kitchen shears. Once that's done you can use the shears to snip open the abdominal cavity and remove the guts, or simply shear off the head together with the gut cavity, which is situated immediately below and behind the head.

Next, lay the fish on its side and use a very sharp knife to separate the flank from the ribs and spine. Then flip over and repeat. Each flank can be divided into three fillets by slicing carefully along its natural seams. You can leave the skin on, and the head and bones are superb for making fish stock.

While it's considered a delicacy​ and can command a high price in fine-dining restaurants, the John Dory is also often used for making that most prosaic of dishes—fish and chips.

False Cousins

There is a misconception out there that John Dory and tilapia are the same fish, but this is completely inaccurate. Apart from both being white fish, the two have little else in common.

Because the fish is rarely available on the American side of the pond, you can substitute Dover sole, grouper, halibut, and snapper. But the real thing is so much better.