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The Challenge Of Finding Really Fresh Fish

Rock cod (Lotella rhacina) caught off the California coast. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Rock cod (Lotella rhacina) caught off the California coast. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Whenever I think about fresh fish I always picture that old MAD magazine column “Silly Answers to Stupid Questions.” The female customer asks at the fish store, “Is that fish fresh?” And the fishmonger answers, “No, it’s very well-mannered.” Seriously though, the question was fair because it does come down to the fishmonger knowing best.

Today’s fishmongers offer a variety of filleted fish, making our lives easier. But this convenience sometimes means customers get lower-quality fish than they did when they bought it unfilleted. Judging whether a fish is fresh is not such an easy thing. It’s not hard for the fishmongers because when they buy it they have access to the fresh-caught fish and knowledge of fish that the consumer does not have.

They often know the fishermen or fish brokers. They have the opportunity to smell and handle the whole fish. Good fishmongers know where the fish was caught and who caught it and they know which areas of the ocean and seas have the right kind of nutrients for particular fish. Not all fishmongers know this, but the good ones do.

Consumers are at a great disadvantage. They cannot even see the whole fish because it often arrives at the fish store from a central processing facility. The fillets are cut into perfect and identical pieces with little to distinguish them from one another.

A fish name doesn’t tell you everything

Furthermore, the fish often have names that have nothing to do with their species. When you buy black cod you’re not buying cod. When you buy Chilean sea bass you’re not buying sea bass. In the first case, black cod is sablefish (Anoplopoma fimbria), which tastes nothing like cod and is the only species in the Anoplopoma genus. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved “sablefish” as the only acceptable market name and considered “black cod” a regional name not to be used for statement of identity purposes. In the second case, Chilean sea bass is an invented marketing name for Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides), a deep-dwelling Antarctic Ocean fish.

Only one sure way to test whether it’s fresh fish

The standard techniques for judging whether a fish is fresh — using your senses of sight, smell and touch — often won’t help the average consumer. Along with not having access to whole fish, customers also often find the fish store does not know where the fish was caught and when. When was the last time a supermarket fishmonger answered, “The fish was caught seven days ago off the Alaska coast?” I can answer that — never.

A consumer’s senses also are useless when the fish sometimes has been doused in sodium benzoate that can disguise a poor quality filleted fish.

There is only one way to determine the freshness of filleted fish, and that is through taste. Since this is not convenient when shopping, customers must trust the fishmonger the first time and then repeat their business if they like his or her fish. If the fish you buy at a particular store is consistently good, then that is your guide for fresh fish. Fresh fish should not taste “fishy,” and the store should not smell “fishy.” It should smell like the briny ocean.

Where the quality fishmongers are

Top quality fish will taste good, unadorned with sauces, while lesser quality fish will taste insipid and generic and — in a telltale sign of non-freshness — fishy. Choose the freshest fish before choosing the recipe. I usually find top quality fishmongers in ethnic areas where fish cookery is important to that particular culture, such as Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Greek, Portuguese or Caribbean neighborhoods.

Lastly, don’t be a boob and ask, “Is this fish fresh?” What do you think they’ll answer?

Main photo: Rock cod (Lotella rhacina) caught off the California coast. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).

  • Martha Rose Shulman 5·5·14

    When I began writing fish recipes, in the 1980s, I was writing from France and I gave readers some of the same advice as Cliff does in this helpful article. But when I moved back from France in the 1990s I had a hard time finding fishmongers at all. One piece of advice I always gave was to look at the fish’s eyes — they shouldn’t be sunken and dull. But nowadays it’s so hard to find a whole fish, almost as difficult as finding a fishmonger!

  • Victor Hazan 5·6·14

    Dear Cliff,

    You have packed a ton of common sense into a brief essay. There is good advice in very sentence. Marcella used to say, use common sense, it’s the most valuable ingredient in the kitchen. Thanks. Victor

  • Renee Marton 5·6·14

    Now that farmers markets are fairly easy to find, I find they are the best places to buy fresh fish. At my local farmers’ market in NYC, the “fish guy” comes on Sundays with fish and shellfish from the Montauk, Long Island area– well within the mile requirement for farmers markets. The seafood he sells is the freshest fish I have seen in a long time, and rivals what I used to get when I was a restaurant chef. Now that I buy retail, the farmers market is the best option for aroma, texture, and length of time the fish will remain fresh enough to prepare–these criteria get top marks. Price, of course, is more problematic, given that we are still in the early stages of transforming our food system. One has to be willing to pay top dollar for this kind of seafood, as well as do a little work (cleaning up the fillets or whole fish, soaking the mussels, etc.). Is it worth it? You bet. And by the way, even farmed shellfish (oysters)– a new business venture taking place in eastern Long Island–can be totally acceptable when “farmed” with quality, safety and a short travel time in mind.

  • Clifford A. Wright 5·7·14

    Thanks Victor, unfortunately as the philosopher William James once said “common sense isn’t so common.” And Renee, yes, farmers market fish guys are very good sources. Here in California I buy fish when I can from a local Community Seafood non-profit which is cool because you are only one step removed from the fisherman himself.