Raw Fish in the US!

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There's been some talk about how to source fish for eating raw in the US and I thought I'd share some of my experience since that's a big part of my job. I tend to break this down in to two big criteria: what's important regarding food safety and what's important regarding it being delicious.

There's a lot of misinformation out there and in general the seafood industry is pretty opaque, so I'll try and pare this down to the most important bits. I'll start with general tips first and then go in to some details with more common fish later. Firstly, "sushi grade" doesn't actually have a meaning. Purely a marketing term as there's no standardization across the industry for what that means. It might be good? It might not. While the easiest choice is to find a Japanese market that has a dedicated section for sashimi fish, not everybody has that luxury. It is totally possible to eat fish you find at a regular market raw, but there are some important pieces of knowledge you need. Regarding safety the four big concerns in my opinion are parasites, toxicity, degradation, and contamination.

1) If you're not sure if a particular type of fish can be eaten raw, its best not to experiment. For example, while eel is often used as an ingredient in sushi, raw eel blood is toxic. Don't eat eel raw. While you're starting out, stick to fish you know. There's also a lot of fish can can be eaten raw but taste like garbage (see: bluefish).

2) Not every fish meant for raw consumption has to be super frozen. I see that touted on the internet a lot as one of the important factors, but as someone who works with a lot of fish wholesalers and restaurants, I promise you that most of the time your high-end restaurants are using fish that's never been frozen. There are fish where that can be a desirable step if you have a super freezer, but it's not a requirement. Please don't use your regular freezer. Both you and your fish will regret it.

3) The FDA publishes a document called the "Fish and Fishery Products Hazards and Control Guidance" available for free via quick google search. I'll save you some time: see chapter 3, table 3-2. If something has a parasite hazard then I would probably not try it on your own unless you feel really comfortable spotting worms or have a super freezer.
A great example of this is hirame. Hirame usually have a lot of worms. I have no problem eating hirame raw because I'm very comfortable with my ability to handle that particular fish. Usually the parasites are in the guts but migrate to the flesh after the fish dies as a survival mechanism. I get very fresh hirame, and I gut them quickly, so there's usually no issues but I do still check the flesh of each one to be safe. I don't recommend hirame for the average home cook. I would extend this bit of advice to all fish where parasites are a potential problem.

Also, just because something has a check in a box on this table doesn't mean it can't be eaten raw, just that potential problems have been identified and that additional care should be taken. There's a lot of variation here, so DM if you need specific guidance on a particular fish.

4) Regarding things you can control: degradation! If possible buy whole fish. That way you can check the gills, eyes, firmness, scent, etc for freshness. Really nice fish doesn't smell fishy. The skin also shouldn't be slimy. The eyes should be clear. The flesh should be firm. The gills should be bright and not dull and discolored.

5) Contamination - while something like a frozen yellowfin tuna block would probably be okay to eat raw from a safety perspective, I tend not to like to buy pre-cut fish. It's different if you can see the butcher and the space where they cut the fish, but if you're buying a frozen tuna steak from walmart then I would probably avoid it. The reason being is that large scale commercial fish processors are great at avoiding things like cross-species contamination, but I've spent enough time in large commercial fish processing plants to tell you that they're kinda gross. Hence my advice to avoid mass processed fish.

6) Here's my steps to achieve tasty fish buying for the home cook:
- First see what's available in your area.
- Reference the FDA list mentioned above to see what you feel comfortable working with.
- Preferably buy the freshest whole fish you can find and remove the guts and gills as soon as you're able to.
- Butcher, slice, and eat.

I don't think it's as hard as many people think it is. Just do a little bit of reading, trust your own senses, and enjoy. Most of the popular sashimi fish aren't going to kill you or make you sick unless you're buying a worm-infested, 2 week old filet from a fishmonger who doesn't wash their hands. 🤣
 
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Tuna: the big three are yellowfin (kihada), bigeye (mebachi), and bluefin (honmaguro).

You're not going to be able to buy a whole fish. Risk is fairly low though, so as long as it looks and smells okay you should be fine. It should not look oily at all (as is no rainbow sheen).
 
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Salmon - pretty much all sushi bars used farm raised salmon. The popular sushi brands are raised in closed system aquaculture with parasite free feed. The purveyors guarantee they're parasite free.

Faroe Islands, Ora King, Norway, - these are all popular. You probably could buy a whole fish if you tried hard, but it's a lot of fish. Most likely you'll be getting a portion. Most grocery stores get their salmon in whole and butcher on sight. It's up to the individual store as to whether they'll show you the fish.
 

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Does the same logic about what to eat raw apply to what to cure without freezing, e.g., for making salmon gravlax? In other words, is it risky to buy a salmon fillet from the local big grocery store and cure it without freezing prior?
 
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Sea bream / porgy type fishes? Clams?
Sea bream is king! Very low risk. As long as you follow the general tips for picking out a fresh fish you're going to be just fine. Be careful with the fin spines as they cause irritation if you get pricked and they are VERY hard and pointy. I recommend kitchen scissors to cut off the fin spines of sea breams before fileting unless you're going to serve the fish on its own bones for display's sake. As a side note, if you have a way to control for temp and humidity I think aged red sea bream sashimi is extremely delicious.

Porgy is totally fine for sashimi! The big concern is that since it's not a high dollar item, fishermen and wholesalers usually don't take great care of the fish. If you find a good one, it's great though!
 
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Does the same logic about what to eat raw apply to what to cure without freezing, e.g., for making salmon gravlax? In other words, is it risky to buy a salmon fillet from the local big grocery store and cure it without freezing prior?
The only reason to freeze is to kill parasites. With wild caught salmon that is a real risk. More and more farm-raised salmon is raised to be parasite-free due to the value added of making sure that it is marketable to sushi bars. Norway is pretty much exporting only parasite free salmon these days, so that's a pretty safe bet.

So when buying from large grocery stores I always have two questions: are the wild caught and farm raised stored and displayed separately? And how fresh is the fish?
 

shopshopshop

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Thanks for the response and advice. I'll have to check next time I'm at the store to see.
 

DitmasPork

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There's been some talk about how to source fish for eating raw in the US and I thought I'd share some of my experience since that's a big part of my job. I tend to break this down in to two big criteria: what's important regarding food safety and what's important regarding it being delicious.

There's a lot of misinformation out there and in general the seafood industry is pretty opaque, so I'll try and pare this down to the most important bits. I'll start with general tips first and then go in to some details with more common fish later. Firstly, "sushi grade" doesn't actually have a meaning. Purely a marketing term as there's no standardization across the industry for what that means. It might be good? It might not. While the easiest choice is to find a Japanese market that has a dedicated section for sashimi fish, not everybody has that luxury. It is totally possible to eat fish you find at a regular market raw, but there are some important pieces of knowledge you need. Regarding safety the four big concerns in my opinion are parasites, toxicity, degradation, and contamination.

1) If you're not sure if a particular type of fish can be eaten raw, its best not to experiment. For example, while eel is often used as an ingredient in sushi, raw eel blood is toxic. Don't eat eel raw. While you're starting out, stick to fish you know. There's also a lot of fish can can be eaten raw but taste like garbage (see: bluefish).

2) Not every fish meant for raw consumption has to be super frozen. I see that touted on the internet a lot as one of the important factors, but as someone who works with a lot of fish wholesalers and restaurants, I promise you that most of the time your high-end restaurants are using fish that's never been frozen. There are fish where that can be a desirable step if you have a super freezer, but it's not a requirement. Please don't use your regular freezer. Both you and your fish will regret it.

3) The FDA publishes a document called the "Fish and Fishery Products Hazards and Control Guidance" available for free via quick google search. I'll save you some time: see chapter 3, table 3-2. If something has a parasite hazard then I would probably not try it on your own unless you feel really comfortable spotting worms or have a super freezer.
A great example of this is hirame. Hirame usually have a lot of worms. I have no problem eating hirame raw because I'm very comfortable with my ability to handle that particular fish. Usually the parasites are in the guts but migrate to the flesh after the fish dies as a survival mechanism. I get very fresh hirame, and I gut them quickly, so there's usually no issues but I do still check the flesh of each one to be safe. I don't recommend hirame for the average home cook. I would extend this bit of advice to all fish where parasites are a potential problem.

Also, just because something has a check in a box on this table doesn't mean it can't be eaten raw, just that potential problems have been identified and that additional care should be taken. There's a lot of variation here, so DM if you need specific guidance on a particular fish.

4) Regarding things you can control: degradation! If possible buy whole fish. That way you can check the gills, eyes, firmness, scent, etc for freshness. Really nice fish doesn't smell fishy. The skin also shouldn't be slimy. The eyes should be clear. The flesh should be firm. The gills should be bright and not dull and discolored.

5) Contamination - while something like a frozen yellowfin tuna block would probably be okay to eat raw from a safety perspective, I tend not to like to buy pre-cut fish. It's different if you can see the butcher and the space where they cut the fish, but if you're buying a frozen tuna steak from walmart then I would probably avoid it. The reason being is that large scale commercial fish processors are great at avoiding things like cross-species contamination, but I've spent enough time in large commercial fish processing plants to tell you that they're kinda gross. Hence my advice to avoid mass processed fish.

6) Here's my steps to achieve tasty fish buying for the home cook:
- First see what's available in your area.
- Reference the FDA list mentioned above to see what you feel comfortable working with.
- Preferably buy the freshest whole fish you can find and remove the guts and gills as soon as you're able to.
- Butcher, slice, and eat.

I don't think it's as hard as many people think it is. Just do a little bit of reading, trust your own senses, and enjoy. Most of the popular sashimi fish aren't going to kill you or make you sick unless you're buying a worm-infested, 2 week old filet from a fishmonger who doesn't wash their hands. 🤣

Good thread, geez, dunno where to begin so bear with me, here’s just a few thoughts:

• I’ve eaten a good amount of none pre-frozen, i.e. fresh caught, salt water fish raw—I’m aware of the risks of parasites, but that was how we ate in the 50th state, markets I shop at there carry a lot a fresh caught fish. Aku (katsuo) can be wormy, but one of my faves.

• On the mainland, I’ll buy fish for raw consumption at Japanese markets—but avoid even high-end fish markets selling ‘sushi grade’ tuna, since most of it looks dreadful to me. Frozen tuna blocks a turn-off for me—much

• I’m shocked and appalled that many sushi bars (mostly lower end) and trendy poké joints on the mainland use ahi treated with carbon monoxide. In Hawaii, markets will usually label tuna treated with carbon monoxide—shoppers on the mainland seem either indifferent or unaware.

Hungry for sashimi now.
 
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DitmasPork

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HOW DO THEY TREAT WITH CARBON MONOXIDE AND WHY DO THEY DO SO?

Tuna and other meats are gassed with CO (carbon monoxide), for cosmetic purposes. Poké (and fish fillets) in Hawaii are labeled if treated with CO—the CO treated poké sells for about half the price of poké made from ‘fresh.’ There’s a subtle difference in taste/texture to me. Problem is that it can make an old piece of fish appear fresh.

The upscale deli near my work has boxes of tuna blocks in the freezer—box has ‘…treated with carbon monoxide’ printed on it. Sadly, the sushi chef at the deli uses it!

“The F.D.A. has put carbon-monoxide-treated tuna on its list of substances generally regarded as safe. ... Any tuna that is hot pink has probably been treated with carbon monoxide. Tuna that is bright red may be extremely fresh, and therefore very expensive, or may have been treated with the gas. —NYTimes, Oct 6, 2004”

This explains it:
Carbon Monoxide Treated Fish: What you need to know
 
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Great and informative thread.

A foolproof way to go is buy the pre-cut saku blocks in the sushi section of your local Japanese supermarket (Nijiya, Marukai, Mitsuwa, etc). Quality ranges from okay to very good, and it's a lot easier to deal with saku blocks. I bought a filet once and it was a pain to deal with the trimmings, and the portion size meant I had less variety vs buying a few different blocks at themarket.
 
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I catch my own tuna, wahoo and grouper (black or gag), not red as they are wormy. All are good for sashimi, and they are darn sure fresh. While I prefer them fresh, after vacuum sealing and freezing, they are pretty darn good a year later.
 

coxhaus

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All fish sold in Texas has to be frozen before selling. You have to catch your own if you really want it fresh.
 

DitmasPork

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When buying fresh fish to eat raw in the US, I typically get it one of three ways—buying from a reputable supermarket known for its fish, that is transparent about fish source; going to the docks to buy directly from charter boats (technically illegal, but they'll sell it to me once I convince them I'm not a cop); good independent fish markets that either work directly with fishermen or go to auctions themselves. For the latter, if fish isn't labeled, I'll as if its local, previously frozen, farmed, etc.

In NYC, Japanese markets a good bet to find blocks/fillets of basic stuff—ahi, sake, saba, hirame, tako, etc.—but pricey.

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MarcelNL

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O man, I miss the days that the fish market (wholesale) was a 30 min drive away...all sorts of fish in large crates with ice and not sprayed with ice water and lighted with blue-ish light to make it appear fresh.
 

Greasylake

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I also catch my own fish. I just wasn't satisfied with the fish I could find in markets and after I got back into fishing, I just stopped buying it. I feel a lot more confident eating a fish that I ike jime and bleed myself, than one I buy in a market and aren't sure how it was handled after catch.
Here is some red snapper sashimi, and a few pieces of sushi, just to show the color
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And here is some yellowfin tuna that I had caught the day before. Best tuna I've ever eaten, even my girlfriend who doesn't like raw tuna ate her fair share of the plate.
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Skylar303

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They haven't discovered these advanced techniques yet
Omg haha! Wouldn't be that hard to figure out... Some people's kids...

Idk why but it reminded me of Space Force on flix. "Yes spaceman, because duct tape will save you"...
 
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