I am often asked how to pick fresh produce of all sorts, but fish seems to elicit the most number of inquiries. And frankly, until a few years ago, I wasn’t such a huge shopper of seafood at the wet markets, so my ability to choose fresh fish is something I have only acquired in the past 5-7 years. Obviously, practice makes perfect, so the first piece of advice I can give you is that if you buy enough fish, often enough, you can figure out the cues for yourself. But it helps to have some expert guidance. And mine came in the form of a crew member who grew up in Northern Palawan and seems to know a LOT about fish. Over the years, at various markets around the country, I have received many selection tips that I have added to conventional wisdom, personal experience, etc. Here are some of the things that may help you pick out the freshest fish and seafood around.
My first tip is a bit of a big duhh tip: buy fish ALIVE whenever you possibly can. I would happily pay a 20-30% premium for live fish in Manila, and perhaps a 10-15% premium at provincial markets where the difference between live and recently deceased is often just one of a few hours. Go to the source on small islands, the small bancas fishing with lines and who have the freshest catch around. Pay them market prices and they will happily give you the best of their catch. Don’t think cheap, think fresh. They say the eyes are the windows to one’s soul. In this case, the eyes are the windows to Marketman’s fish freshmometer. The first thing you need to check when buying fish are the clarity of the eyes. They should look alive and be totally clear. The eye of the kubotan or cuttlefish up top is a superb example of something incredibly fresh and just out of the sea. It was so fresh, it was actually still ALIVE! If only I had a video, I could have captured the creature still trying to change the colors on its skin to try and camouflage itself… it was fascinating. I did feel a tinge of guilt taking a picture of it, and knowing it would be eaten that day, but this is nevertheless the best example I have of freshness as seen through the eyes. All the other fish photos here show you the clarity of the eyes, and this is a great way to start your fish selection. Blood shot eyes are NOT a good sign, neither are cataract like afflicted eyes, avoid both of these conditions.
Once the eyes have passed the glassy eye test, check that the fishes gills are a lively dark or deep red. Just lift the gill flaps and see for yourself. Pale gills means the fish has been dead a while. Next, does the fish possess a sheen, often referred to locally as “laway” or saliva!? If the fish is still coated by this slighly sticky watery mucous-like film, it is fresh out of the sea, and better yet, hasn’t been sitting on ice for any length of time.
You may also need to gently poke the flesh of the fish, it should be pliable and bounce back a little, providing some resistance and spring. It should feel like your skin on your lower arm in your twenties unless you were seriously overweight. You do NOT want it to feel like the flab on your upper arm that tends to happen to most 60+ year olds…. (heehee, sorry, no offense meant to various readers of varying ages!). If the flesh feels mushy that is a bad sign.
I have also learned to touch and poke the stomach to see if it is particularly or noticeably mushy. My tutor is convinced that fish which were caught with the use of dynamite have very tender stomachs as the pressure from the explosion and sound waves affect the stomach of the fish and leave tell-tale signs. The one thing I am simply unable to discern is if a fish was caught with the use of cyanide. The poison doesn’t seem to affect the eyes, gills, skin or stomach so what appears to be a perfectly good fish could send you to the hospital emergency room for a stomach pump. This happened to us once, I bought from a suki that curiously was pushing some fish more than usual, and they looked great, so I bought some and cooked it up one evening. But a last minute call to a dinner with friends meant we left the whole fried fish with sweet and sour sauce to the crew to eat, and that night several of them got severe food poisoning and ended up at the emergency rooms, most likely with a touch of cyanide poisoning. Needless to say, the next time I was at the market, I let the vendor have a serious piece of my mind, and when she confirmed she got the fish not from a regular or trusted source, I told her what happened and I have never purchased another fish from her again… If I were the Chief of Marine Punishment, I would sentence all fishermen found guilty of using cyanide to eat 12 meals in a row of fish laced with cyanide. :(