It’s not by accident that literature is filled with references to the tricks unethical fishmongers will play. From the ancient comedy writers to Athenaeus to Shakespeare, the fishmonger is derided for everything from spraying fish with water to make it look fresh to overcharging for his goods.
Not much has changed today. So how, exactly can you know if the red mullets you just ordered are, indeed, today’s catch as promised, despite a sea that’s been churning high on the Beaufort scale for days (which usually means fishing boats are in the port not at sea)? How about that tuna, rosy red and almost luminescent, that you just ordered at your favorite sushi restaurant in Mykonos or even Manhattan? Is it a Monday? Should we follow the famed advise of author Anthony Bourdain, who says NEVER to order fish in a restaurant on a Monday because supplies don’t come in on weekends, so there’s no way it will be the freshest catch?
Almost all Greek seafood tavernas have their fish displayed either on ice or in ice-packed drawers, ready for the customer to choose. The oldest trick in the book is the switch: What’s on display is indeed the freshest catch, but what actually ends up being cooked is hidden away in another drawer unseen by innocent dinner goers. In July and August, when the meltemia whip up and local fishing sometimes slows down but demand for fish skyrockets, this is a trick many fish tavernas resort to. If the taverniari (taverna owner) also happens to be a fisherman, he might freeze his winter catch then sell it as fresh in peak season. So follow the waiter as closely as possible to make sure what you choose is what the kitchen cooks.
While you can’t always protect yourself from unsavory taverna owners, you can learn a few useful tips that will help you to know whether a fish is fresh or old.
What exactly is fresh?
For many unknowing consumers, fresh simply means not frozen. To others it means ‘at its peak”. To the Japanese it means less than a day old, as in less than 24 hours after it was caught. This is often referred to as being ‘sashimi quality’ . However for it to be truly of sashimi quality it must have been caught, killed, gutted and stored in a certain way before sale. To a professional chef it will usually (and hopefully) mean being served within three days of being caught.
What to Look for:
Look for bright, clear eyes. Dull-eyed fish may be safe to eat, but they are past their prime.
Next look at the fish. Does it shine? Does it look metallic and clean? The freshest fish have a layer of “sea slime” on their flesh. If the flesh is dull or has discolored patches on it, it is marginal. If the fish has scales the scales should be plentiful and not dried up.
Smell it. A fresh fish should smell like clean water, or a touch briny or even like cucumbers. Fish that smells “fishy” or has a faint (or strong) ammonia smell, should be avoided at all costs. Cooking won’t improve it.
Look at the gills. They should be a rich red. If the fish is old, they will turn the color of faded brick.
Touch it. Does the flesh bounce back resiliently or does your finger leave an indentation? The latter is a sign that the fish is old.
All of the above applies to fish filIets plus one more sign: Is there liquid on the meat? If so, that liquid should be clear, not milky. Milky liquid on a fillet is the first stage of rot.
Lobsters and Crabs
The best way to choose a live crab or lobster is to look for, well, life. Is it scampering around in its tank? Swimming happily? Or is it sulking in a corner or hanging motionless and panting? If so, don’t buy it. Lobsters and crabs starve themselves in tanks and often can be almost empty inside when you crack open one that’s been imprisoned in a tank for weeks.
What is a dead one? Shellfish are sold alive, so they should react to you. Tap the shell: It should close tighter than it was. You can also tell a dead shellfish after you’ve cooked them all. Dead ones do not open after being cooked. If one arrives on your plate, don’t eat it.
It is virtually impossible to find fresh shrimp so beware of any restaurant menu that claims to serve them. The safest shrimp are whole and frozen. Whole because the shell protects them from the rigors of being frozen without losing too much moisture, and frozen because shrimp cook – and rot – very rapidly.
There’s a reason why Greek cooks prefer head-on shrimp: These are moister than already cleaned then cooked shrimp. They are just a little bit of a hassle to cook.
Everything that applies to shrimp also applies to karavides.
Squid or Octopus
Despite our obsession with spear-fished fresh octopus, finding one in a fish restaurant is almost as easy as finding a pearl in an oyster shell. Most octopus and squid are sold frozen to restaurants. In Greece, from August through late October, when squid fishing is in season, finding a legitimate fresh one becomes a little easier.
To know whether they are fresh, look at their eyes, which, like fin fish, should be bright and clean.
Does the restaurant keep its fish properly?
Fish should always be gutted and gilled as soon as it is caught, so any bacteria held in these areas cannot permeate into the flesh as it breaks .
A fish may be only two days old but if it is has not been stored correctly it might as well be two weeks! For every hour a freshly caught fish is not stored on ice, it loses one day of shelf life. So a fish not chilled for four hours is equivalent in quality to a five day old fish that has been kept on ice
If a fish is stored correctly, (kept on ice) from the time it is caught, it has a useable life of up to ten days.
The eyes might be slightly sunken – indicating the fish is ‘fresh’ but not the freshest
No sea slime on the body, this can indicate that its is very fresh but its just been handled with a cloth and wiped off
What it all comes down to is one must use one’s owns judgement, rely on one’s senses (including common sense!) and take into account the kind of restaurant you are in:
In sushi restaurants, the fish used must almost be alive.
If you’re ordering a poached fish or fish soup, the fish must be fresh, fresh, fresh..
If you’re ordering fish meant for the skillet or grill, the fish cook has a little more leeway and can get away with cooking fish that’s fresh but not the freshest.
One of the newer tricks of the fish trade is to, literally, gas fish with carbon monoxide. Frozen fish is thawed and gassed, which changes its color and firms up its flesh. If you ever notice especially pink salmon and tuna that is the color of blushing pink roses, these have most probably been gassed. Beware.