Tales From the Deep

Enough With This Fresh Fish Nonsense!

It's all so so so fresh!
It’s all so so so fresh! Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, the Awl reignited the debate about which days of the week are worst for fish-ordering by consulting Eddie Huang (“There’s no fresh fish on Sunday except if it’s bought fresh from Chinatown”), and Sam Sifton, who pointed them to — who else? — Anthony Bourdain. Sifton’s recommendation makes sense, since whenever friends nudge me conspiratorially and confide that they know when such-and-such chef gets his fish shipment, as if they were drug informants tipping me off to the date of a re-up, I blame Anthony Bourdain.

It’s been more than a decade since he issued his famous injunction against eating fish on Mondays. In the intervening years, things have changed in, oh, about a thousand ways. (A point, to be fair, that Mr. Bourdain admits in his newest book, Medium Raw.) All I’ll say here is that in the time it took me to write this paragraph I could’ve ordered impeccable Santa Barbara sea urchin to arrive at my door tomorrow. In other words, no one avoids fish on Mondays anymore, just as people no longer balk at the idea of eating, say, lobster in Minnesota. Bourdain says as much, with the brief mea culpa: “Eat the fucking fish on Monday already.” The problem is that his macho swagger and general sagacity make his counsel particularly persistent. What remains is the vague suspicion among my nudge-happy friends that the fish they’re eating is never fresh enough, along with some major misconceptions about what freshness means.

It’s not that I doubt that you may occasionally get the dregs of a restaurant’s walk-in, slightly mushy cod or sardines that have just begun to stink. You still need to employ common sense, but it’s the fetishizing of freshness that bugs me. It’s the people giddily eating still-wriggling octopus and squirming shrimp, as though they were experiencing something other than novelty. If minimizing the time between the fish swimming and me chewing were all it took to get great sea bass, then Le Bernardin would have the penthouse-apartment equivalent of those aquatic tenements you see in the window of the average seafood restaurant in Chinatown.

I called David Kinch, the chef of Manresa in Los Gatos, California, who I know is fanatical about fish. “Freshness defined by when a fish came out of the ocean is the most obvious factor,” he told me. “But it’s only one of them.” Other stuff matters, too, and can mean the difference between, say, sea bream that costs $12 a pound and sea bream ten times as expensive. Just to name a few examples, there’s whether it’s wild or farmed, where it’s caught (currents! coastlines! water temperature!), how it’s killed, how it’s handled, and how it’s stored and shipped.

As Julia Moskin made common knowledge a while back, most of the raw fish we’ve been eating has been frozen to kill parasites — and we don’t know the difference. It’s a bit strange to think that anyone might prefer frozen fish. But many great chefs do. I once took a tour of a so-called super-freezer facility (in New Jersey, of all places), where cryogenic technology is applied not to rich dead guys like Ted Williams, but to tuna. You walk into one enormous room, where guys in white coats are cutting fish with band saws into rectangular blocks that resemble nothing so much as slabs of wood. It’s cold in there, but nothing compared to the arctic vaults where they store the fish, which are kept at 76 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. My guide told me I could step inside for ten seconds, but I scurried out after about two — as soon as my eyelashes froze. Deep-sea-fishing boats are equipped with this crazy technology to freeze just-killed fish. And it’s only after chefs defrost the fish that rigor mortis (the muscle stiffening that happens after we croak) sets in. Creepy. In other words, fish that’s been super-frozen for a year is, in a way, fresher than a lot of fish that’s straight off the boat.

Even stranger, perhaps, is that this level of freshness isn’t always ideal. Marco Canora, of Hearth and Terroir in New York, told me he had gone deep-sea fishing and caught a bonito. His shipmates butchered the fish, and Canora sampled the flesh minutes after the fish had been killed. “You could tell it was a great fish — perfect fat content, clean flavor,” Canora said. “But the texture was like eating rubber bands.” Turns out rigor mortis is not delicious. Okay, fine, you might not want to eat certain fish straight from the ocean, but you wouldn’t want to wait longer than a few days, right? Tell that to the Japanese chefs who age their tuna for up to a few weeks, as if it were porterhouse.

And it’s not just red-meat fish like tuna and bonito that benefit from controlled, uh, de-freshening. Kinch told me that turbot is actually at its gelatinous best four or five days out of the water, when its flesh has had a chance to relax: “It’s one of the fish I’m happy to import from Europe, because I don’t give a shit if it’s on a plane for two days.”

Kuniko Yagi, formerly chef de cuisine at Sona, recently returned from Japan, where she did a few stages at kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto. She told me that when the chefs wanted to highlight the almost crunchy texture of raw snapper, they’d serve it the day it died, while the flesh was still pulsing. But when they wanted to flaunt the flavor, they’d wait a day. “When the fish died that morning, I couldn’t tell if it was fluke or blowfish or snapper,” she said. “The next day, you could.”

JJ Goode is the co-author of Truly Mexican with Roberto Santibañez, and April Bloomfield’s first cookbook, to be published in summer 2012.

Enough With This Fresh Fish Nonsense!