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As complicated as the world of meat can be, the world of seafood can be just as challenging to sort through. This month we are going to take a general look at everything from the sea and try to take the guess work out of what is truly “fresh” seafood and to debunk the myths of the very popular thing we all love called “sushi/sashimi”!!!

Let’s get started with the basics. Some of these might seem obvious, but they are very important when combined! How can you tell if what you’re buying is truly fresh fish? Here are some pointers:

Whole Fish, fillets and steaks

  • Go to a reputable store or fishmonger. Do your research. Ask questions. If they are truly in the fish business, they should be happy to tell you the source of their product and any other detail regarding time to table, and handling procedures.
  • Ask what is the freshest or check what the catch of the day is. Don’t be misguided by the term “fresh. Most landlocked areas selling fish usually have two types of fish – thawed or frozen, unless it is an upstanding vendor who really likes freshness.
  • Check the gills. If whole, they should be bright pink/red and wet, not slimy or dry.
  • Don’t be afraid to touch. Look for firm, shiny flesh. It should bounce back when touched. Also, slime is a good thing!!
  • Sniff the fish. A “fresh” fish should NEVER smell “fishy”.
  • Check the eyes. If the head is on, fresh fish should have clear eyes, no cloudiness should be present and they should bulge a little.
  • Check cuts of fish. Fish fillets and steaks should be moist and without change of color.
  • On fillets and steaks, look for flesh separation and gaps. If the meat separates from itself it’s not fresh.
  • Look for discoloration, brown or yellow edges, and a spongy consistency, these are all signs of aging fish.

Meat – should be firm. The legs should be intact.
Color – no browning or blackening on the edges – no black spots
Smell – there should be no fishy smell – just a mild ocean smell
Alive – although they tend to come shipped in sacks, they should be alive.
Throw out any dead ones before you cook them.
Ideally, you should buy lobster from a lobster pound or a seafood market that has lobsters delivered daily.
Color – they come in many different colors, so that should not matter
Alive – it should be active and lively
Blue Crab
Alive – the legs should be moving and whole.
Body – there should be no cracks in the body, claws, or edible legs.
Smell – there should be no fishy smell – just a mild ocean smell
Oysters and Clams
Alive – with tightly closed shells
Shells – no cracks in the shells
Smell – there should be no fishy smell – just a mild ocean smell
Alive – with tightly closed shells
Shells – no chips or cracks
Smell – there should be no fishy smell – just a mild ocean smell
Color – should be ivory, light pink or white with no evidence of browning
Texture – should be firm and not mushy
Smell – they should have a sweet smell. If they smell sour, then they are spoiled.
Eyes – clear and full
Meat – should be firm
Skin – there should be no tears in the skin

Now onto sushi/sashimi and the consumption of RAW fish!

The term “sushi-grade” is usually tossed around to imply a level of freshness, but in the US, there’s NO regulation around the use of the phrase, so it can be used to describe anything. That being said, most stores aren’t in the business of getting their customers sick, so they usually reserve the label for their freshest fish.

Unfortunately, just because it’s fresh doesn’t mean it can be eaten raw. Fish like salmon, contain parasites that will make you sick unless they’ve been eliminated. Another huge problem is cross-contamination. This happens when “sushi-grade” fish gets cut on the same cutting board or using the same knife or handled with the same gloves as non-sushi-grade fish. If your fishmonger is storing unwrapped sushi-grade fish in the same refrigerated case as non-sushi-grade fish, this should be a big red flag.

For fish that contain parasites, the FDA provides guidance under their Parasite Destruction Guarantee. This states in part that fish intended to be consumed raw must be “frozen and stored at a temperature of -20°C (-4°F) or below for a minimum of 168 hours (7 days) OR Frozen at -35° C (-31° F – “flash frozen”) for 15 hours”.

Cross contamination is a bigger issue. Because most stores don’t sell a high enough volume of fish intended to be eaten raw, they don’t maintain a separate space for handling their “sushi-grade” fish. What’s worse, because tuna is such a large fish, most stores don’t deal with whole tuna, they buy them pre-filleted, which means you have to take into consideration not only the stores handling of the fish, but their supplier’s handling of the fish as well.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is how much you trust your fishmonger to understand the best practices for handling fish meant to be consumed raw, and how much they trust their suppliers to hold the same standards.

Here are a few things to remember when buying fish to ensure you have a safe and delicious sushi-dinner:

  • Observe and see for yourself whether they’re cutting their sushi-grade fish on the same cutting board as their other fish, without changing gloves or disinfecting their knife and board first.
  • Ask whether they fillet the fish you’re looking to buy themselves, or if they’re getting them pre-filleted.
  • If you are buying salmon, ask if they can produce logs that show the times and temperatures that the fish was frozen.

We hope this helps you make the right and safe decision next time you’re starring at the giant selection of fish on display at your favorite fish spot! Happy eating. (*sources: PBS, Wikihow.com, saltchef.com, FDA, PCFFA.org)

Chef Bobby
The Primitive Gourmet