Monday, 28 September 2009

The Sushi Sashimi Confusion - Can you tell the difference between fresh and old?

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 London is not fresh enough to eat raw; then these people will head to itsu, prêt or even Marks & Spencer to purchase a pre-pack sushi with a use by date. I do not profess to be an expert in the art of sushi and sashimi, but I have undertaken the making and eating of raw fish to levels of success. In this blog I will tell you what I tell my customers on a daily basis hoping it will help you when buying fish.

What species?

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 British Isles does yield some great species that are suitable for Japanese cuisine: salmon, sea bass, brill, mackerel, sardine, eel, crab (cooked), squid, octopus, shrimp, sea bream, scallops and lemon sole. Tuna is commonly used and offers a good flavour due to it being imported into the UK at levels of high quality.

What Quality?

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 Europe. However, don’t be confused by the various white fish fillets such as cod, haddock, Pollack and plaice you will see on the slab. These have been filleted at sea and this is the best way to keep such species in peak condition (they do not have an application in sashimi).

Salmon & Tuna

In the UK these are the two most commonly used fish for homemade sashimi. It may surprise you to hear that there are 6 grades of yellow fin tuna, with ‘1’ being the finest. I am confident you would never have seen anything above a 2/3 anywhere in the UK. That doesn’t mean to say grades 2 and 3 are not of high enough quality to eat raw, however, the consistency does vary dramatically. Personally I have a hatred of selling tuna. The quality is inconsistent, the supply has no continuity and the wastage is higher that any other product. I do foresee a huge reduction of tuna available to our markets as the value of yellow fin rockets alongside the withdrawal of the blufin. Maybe we will not have to discuss tuna at all very soon (fingers crossed). When looking for tuna make sure it is firm and has as little sinew as possible as this will make thin slicing very difficult. It mush have NO smell at all and be appealing to the eye. Colours will vary and in my opinion the slightly darker cuts are better. Try to avoid the bright pink varieties as some unscrupulous fish traders (recorded in areas of Spain) will dye grey tuna too red. Avoid grey or brown coloured tuna. When on a slab it can be a little more difficult to recognise between qualities of salmon as so many variations are available. Again does it appeal to the eye? Bright and shiny, preferably scales on the skin (my reasoning for this is that higher quality whole salmon arrive in peak condition which includes firm skin - lower quality soft fleshed salmon will have lost a lot of scales). Look and see how well has it been pin boned. Do not be misled into thinking that because there are tears along the pin bone line the fish is old. On the contrary. The fresher the fish, this includes all species, the harder it is to remove pin bones – fact. This does not mean a competent boner cannot remove pin bones without tearing the flesh, but my point is that maybe not everything you see is immediately obvious so do not jump to conclusions. Farmed salmon does seem to apply itself better to sashimi due to its slightly higher fat content (if you get a chance to try wild salmon as sashimi it is amazing). There is no reason as why you could not use farmed organic salmon as a replacement if you are able to find a fresh enough product – I haven’t as yet. Farmed salmon is a fairly cheap product so you do get what you pay for. Most importantly it must not smell at all. Lastly ask for it to be skinned but then take it home to slice yourself as it is easy to do and it is good to practice.

Note the brightly coloured appealing flesh. Avoided faded or patchy flesh usually discoloured by ice damage or aging. Note the white fat lines of the farmed salmon

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.

Bright and shiny body and stunning eyes - all key to look for

Gilthead Bream (farmed above, wild below) See how the body of a fresh fish shines

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.

Stunningly fresh brill in rigor-mortis. See what beautiful light brown colour a fresh fish offers

Amazing golden Cornish lemon soles - exactly what to look for. Older fish will grey very quickly.

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.

Lovely big hook and line caught mackerel still offering their green flanks


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.

Huge Scottish diver caught scallops

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.

The beautiful blue eye of a stunningly fresh Cornish octopus

Beautiful pure white jigged squid. Note the colour still in the eyes.


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 freezing 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 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.


  1. I read this whole article and found it very useful. I went to Steve Hatt Fishmongers in Islington and found some amazing fresh Scottish salmon and sea bream. We made some very tasty nigiri and sushi rolls last night.

    Thanks for all the tips!

    From Lars in Islington

  2. Brilliant, thank you for the information. Going to try out!

  3. Thank you very much! Extremely useful, particularly the pictures and the UK perspective!

  4. Excellent informative article, thanks a lot.

  5. very useful thank you

  6. Cheers for the tips :)

    I personally use Kazari ( The fish is absolutely great & although I'm by no means an expert, their fish is fantastic & they have a great selection.

    Keep those articles coming.