Selecting a Fresh Fish
by Kasma Loha-unchit
See Also: The Thai Fish-Eating Tradition.
It is easiest to tell how fresh fish is when it is still whole. At the local Oriental fish market I frequent, what attracts me first to a fish is its overall radiance. Its skin and scales glisten with a jewel-like luster under the lights. Next, I look at the eyes – they must be clear, shiny and not sunken. Lifting the gill cover should reveal luminous pinkish-red gills and not dark, bloody red, dried out or slimy ones. The fish should be firm to the touch and its surface shouldn't feel slimy. When pressed gently with the finger, the flesh springs back up and doesn't leave an indentation. Above all, the fish must have a fresh smell of the sea and not a strong fishy odor.
Exceptions are skate wings and shark, which need to be a few days old to allow the ammonia in their flesh to dissipate. If they are very fresh when bought, you will need to let them sit in the refrigerator for a few days to age to a more pleasant state. They also benefit from a two-hour soak in water containing lime juice, lemon juice or vinegar.
If I wish a truly fresh fish, my Chinatown fishmonger has aquarium tanks stocked with many varieties. I tell him the kind and size fish I want and make sure he nets one that is particularly lively. Whether live out of the tank, or selected from the ice-covered counter, he first weighs and prices the fish, then scales, guts and cleans it for me as part of the service. Most fishmongers will clean fish for you at no extra charge, so you need not worry about having to clean them yourself. In fact, they will cut the head off for you if you so desire (Oriental fish markets resell them to Asians). The price per pound shown on tags placed by each type of fish is for the uncleaned weight. As a rough guide: an average one- to two-pound fish with scales loses about twenty percent of its weight after it is cleaned, but with head, tail, fins and skin still attached. The fish size for the recipes in this book is given by the uncleaned weight.
Unless you are buying from a well-trafficked, open-counter Oriental fish market, in most cases, your ability to judge freshness will be limited by the refrigerated, glass display cases, restricting you from smelling or touching the fish. Most western fishmongers also carry few whole fish, further reducing other indicators of freshness. For fillets and steaks, I still look for the luster in the skinned flesh and a moist, pink color, avoiding pieces that look dull and dry and that are browning. In such cases, the reliability of the fishmonger is of utmost importance.
Because Asians love fish and consume vast quantities of them, your best bet for getting the freshest fish is to seek out an Oriental fish market – that is, if you live in a major metropolitan area with a sizeable Asian population to ensure demand and a quick turnover. Best, of course, is a fish market that carries fish live in tanks.
If you are not able to locate fresh whole fish for the recipes that call for them, they may be substituted with frozen whole fish from a reliable source. Some flash-frozen fish can still taste quite fresh. If such fish are also unavailable, do not skip over the recipes entirely, as some of them are substitutable with fish steaks or fillets with acceptable results.
See Also: A Seafood Culture.