It would seem everybody knows best when it comes to buying fish, especially when they want to eat it raw. Mrs X, who could not tell the difference between a fish caught last night too a fish a week old or previously frozen all of a sudden has Japanese routes and is the utmost knowledge on sashimi! We are regularly told that fish in
Firstly the fish you use does need to be the correct species to produce quality sushi or sashimi. Bear in mind a number of fish you would eat in Japanese restaurants do not frequent British or European shores. I therefore suggest not buying or using the following fish if making your own sashimi: Yellow Tail, Surf Clam, Abalone and Sea Urchin (European species very different to Asian). The
So you are now knowledgeable enough on what species too look for at your fishmonger, but what are you looking for with regards freshness? Firstly don’t bother going through the ‘what’s fresh enough to eat raw today’ or ‘what is the best day to buy fresh fish’ scenarios with the monger. More often than not they will have as much clue as you and will then tend to bluff their way through trying to sell you what they want. Instead use that time to cast your eye across the counter. See what looks fresh – shiny and appealing – does it look still alive? You need to become confident to decide on your own just by looking.
Apart from salmon, which is normally sold as fillet, and tuna that normally enters the country in large boneless pieces, avoid buying fillets of the fish species mentioned above. They have been filleted for a reason – normally to disguise aging - discoloured grey skin, clouded eyes, soft flesh, white gills and so on. This is a usual method undertaken by supermarkets that normally receive their fish in an already deteriorating condition. I have also seen many circumstances of this at fishmongers across
Salmon & Tuna
Sea Bass & Sea Bream
These two species are great for sashimi with their firm whitish/grey flesh with a slight oil content. Wild sea bass will yield the best product and wild gilthead bream, if they can be found, would be equally as good. Farmed gilthead bream, if fresh, are also very good as they are oilier still – farmed bass is a product I would avoid cooked or raw. The points to look for, in order, when buying these fish: firm flesh, shiny skin, fish still in rigor-mortis, red odourless gills, slim not a large stomach, bright eyes. I do not hold clear eyes as the defining freshness factor although it is a helpful guide. Ask your fishmonger to fillet and skin your fish, but I would suggest you leave the pin bones in as they will tear the fish to ribbons if removed. When you get your fillets home slice them as a D-Cut removing the bones as and when you find them. An important tip is that black bream, couches bream, rays bream and red bream do not offer the same type of flesh as the Gilthead Bream.
Brill & lemon Sole
The brill is a great fish for sashimi if found at a high enough quality. We have also found many of our Japanese customers taking to lemon sole as an alternative as they are slightly smaller. The brill, however, is the better of the two as it yields a slightly off white/grey flesh not unlike the bass. Make sure the fishmonger leaves the fin ray ends when he skins the fish as they are a delicacy in Japanese cuisine. Again the same rules apply when choosing your fish with most emphasis put on flesh firmness. The eyes of flatfish, due to the size, discolour very quickly so can not really be used as an indication. Also the gills are small and obscured so yield little helpful information on freshness.
Mackerel & Sardines
Some of the hardest fish to find are fresh mackerel and sardines. The natural colour of the raw flesh should be dark reddish, however, diet and spawning seasons affect the colour dramatically. Whitish flesh is common and does not mean the fish is old, but is not quite so good for sashimi. Bear in mind it is impossible for the fishmonger to know the flesh colour of the fish before he fillets them. A fresh mackerel can be spotted a mile off. Stiff from head to tail, green flashing across the flanks, nice red gills and lovely firm flesh. They are the true indication of a fishmonger’s quality therefore always start by looking at them as this will give a good indication of the quality he buys. With mackerel you do get what you pay for. Although they are deemed as a cheap fish, prices ranging from 2.80 to 9.95 per kilo, you really will get rubbish if you pay less than 6.95. Avoid the small watery looking fish as these are from trawled Scottish fisheries and sold by supermarkets and mongers as they have a very cheap wholesale price. Try and find large line caught fish as these will be days fresher and much meatier.
For sashimi always go for live in the shell and learn to cut them out just before you use them as the resulting taste is phenomenal. You may be able to buy diver caught scallops, although expensive, from good fishmongers or smaller trawl collected scallops in their shells in dozens by pre ordering. Some pre cut scallops are good enough for sashimi but why take the risk. Pre-plan, order in advance, and end up with the best product. One point to note is that many people believe a scallop should be a large plump white piece of meat. In fact the natural colour of a scallop is an off whitish grey. The plump white scallop you sometimes see is water soaked to add weight like the chicken breast in Tesco – extra weight equals money – avoid at all costs.
Cephalopods – Octopus and Squid
Cooked Octopus and raw squid are commonly used in sashimi and sushi. Both are caught inshore from the English coast thus good quality should be available. Squid and octopus have green and blue eyes respectively and are a very good indication of extreme freshness. Additional with the English species, the whiter the flesh the better the quality. If the flesh is pinking, usually the wings on a squid or the legs of the octopus, this means it is on the turn and should be avoided. Look again for firmness as this is key to freshness. Have you fishmonger clean the inside and remove the beak but do not automatically have it skinned as cephalopod skin does offer a cheeky and unusual alternative flavour to the dish.
Usually cooked when served as sushi so either buy a live crab and cook it yourself or purchase hand picked un-pasteurised un-frozen white meat. Buying a live crab does not always mean quality as the condition varies throughout the year. Avoid hen crabs in January through to the end of May and cock crabs from September through to the end of December. A very top tip is that if you are given the choice pick a crab with barnacles on the shell. Barnacles reside in food rich areas that high quality crabs benefit from. If buying ready cooked meat make sure it offers 3 or more days shelf life. The maximum shelf life fresh un-pasteurised meat should offer is 5 days so any longer it is either old or pasteurised being sold as fresh.
So that is all very straight forward – or is it? How about the frozen debate? There seems to be no guidelines that relate to what quantifies sushi grade fish. In the US there is some confusion regarding the “parasite destruction guarantee, which is accomplished by 'freezing and storing seafood at -4°F (-20°C) or below for 7 days (total time), or at -31°F (-35°C) or below until solid and storing at -31°F (-35°C) or below for 15 hours, or freezing at -31°F (-35°C) or below until solid and storing at -4°F (-20°C) or below for 24 hours' which is sufficient to kill parasites” (ref http://www.sushifaq.com/sushi-grade-fish.htm). There seems no mention of this in any British guidelines. I am unsure quite how relevant it is as the Japanese have been eating raw fish many months before freezers were invented!! Maybe I can squeeze a blog post on this in the future.