OK, so here are some industry secrets to help you buy sushi grade fish when Kazari can’t help you. That being said, the following can apply to any fish selection.
The bad news is that most of us don’t have access to Tsukiji market. The good news is that we have access to Kazari!
Let’s pretend, hypothetically, that you were embarking on a culinary trip to Japan when your plane crash-landed in the sea. Now you are stranded on a tropical island (think Lost) and you have a craving for some sushi. Unfortunately you have no connection to the outside world and therefore cannot contact Kazari to buy some magnificent sushi fish.
Fortunately,there are tropical fish swimming along the beach of the island on which you are stranded. Additionally, there is a small stall on the beach that is hosted by an old fisherman selling his days catch. A fishmonger was also on your plane, like most Western fishmongers he doesn't know a lot about “shu-shi”, but he does offer to do all of the dirty work / fish prep, which Kazari would usually do, to give you some clean fish fillets for sushi.
So how do you select and buy fish for sushi and sashimi from the old man’s stall?
The “smell of fish” or “fishy smell” that we often associate with fish in the Western world should be more accurately described as the “smell of rotting fish”, which is often sold in fishmongers and most supermarkets. This is a real shame; fresh sushi fish should be almost odourless, with a scent that you would associate with the beach or sea. If it smell’s fishy, bin it.
This is quite a well-known one. If buying a whole fish for sushi, make sure the eyes are nice and clear. Cloudy or bloodshot eyes are bad, avoid.
Another easy signal of great sushi fish:look for bright red gills,avoid pale pink gills, they are old and are bad fish for making sushi.
When fish are caught, ion imbalances in the muscle cells cause Rigor Mortis. This is the phenomenon of chronic stiff muscle contraction, which means when held horizontally, a small fish will not “flop” and be more akin to a ruler. In contrast, go to the fish counter at your local supermarket and ask to hold a Mackerel. 90% of the time it will flop in submission to gravity.
This is quite important, as texture is a large part of enjoying sashimi. Not convinced? Imagine mushy Sashimi…YUK.
5. Fillet appearance
Quite often you only given the option of buying your fish already filleted. This makes it quite a bit trickier to buy fish for sushi. The first thing to do in this instance is the smell test. Next, the flesh should be glistening and shiny, not dry and faded. All to often fish is left out with the flesh exposed to oxide sat to the detriment of texture. You can test this as home yourself, simply cut two slices of Salmon, and wrap one in cling film while leaving the other unwrapped in the refrigerator for a few hours.
If buying Tuna, the flesh should be bright red, almost pink. This is almost non-existent without super-freezing because the flesh quickly oxidises and is the reason that Tuna in sushi bars is bright pink compared with your local fishmonger and supermarket, which is a dark red colour.
6. Scales removed
This one may seem a little bit petty, but is still important if you are fish snobs like ourselves. And anyway, if you are buying fish for sushi to eat raw, you should be too. The method for removing scale in the Western world is well, brutal. Either a knife or a scaling tool is rubbed vigorously along the fishes skin while scales project off in all directions. It’s not only messy, but it damages both the skin and flesh.
For top quality fish, the scales should be removed with a very sharp knife, slowly slices off the scales by running the blade between the skin and scales. This will produce a long connected strip of scales that can be removed from the fish without any damage to the skin. This technique not only requires a lot of skill,, but is also very time consuming and is a small part of why we pay a premium for the skills of top sushi chefs and those who prepare and process all of the fish at Kazari HQ.
So we have already talked previously, twice, about freezing and super freezing here and here. In short, freezing is a legal requirement for fish that are to be eaten raw in the US and EU. Super Freezing is a premium technique pioneered by the Japanese to preserve fish for sushi in an optimal condition. It is used by Kazari and a few other of the countries leading sushi businesses in the UK.
8. Fat content
Now for some fish, lots of fat is great. This is what makes o-toro (Bluefin Tuna belly) so sought after. Fat is also what makes our Hamachi and Skilfish so buttery and wonderful to eat. In contrast, you won’t and don’t want to find any fat in your Turbot, Snapper or Bass.
So this bullet point refers mainly to Salmon, which is by far the most popular fish for sushi in the UK. Almost all Salmon is farmed from either Norway or Scotland. Some farms are better than others and in a good farm, the fish will have lots of space to swim around, exercises its muscles and ultimately not build up too much fat. These healthy fish will also have a firmer and more pleasurable texture that is found in wild fish. The white lines in Salmon are the fat, so a good Salmon has thin white lines compared with a bad Salmon that will have thick white lines.
9. Wild Vs. Farmed
This has been covered in the last point. The texture of wild fish is superior to that of farmed fish. Think of farmed fish as cage chickens compared with wild fish which are free range.
10. Cut, avoid tuna steaks
Tuna is usually sold in steak form to consumers. This makes it terribly hard to cut for nigiri and especially sashimi cuts. Be sure to get cuts that are at least 1 inch thick, if nothing more than for your own sanity.
So here you go, print this guide and keep it handy for the next time you are stranded on an island and out of Kazari’s reach.