05 May2008


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. :(




  1. Lex says:

    Thanks for the fish buying tips. I also know that a very telling sign of the seafoods’ freshness is in the smell. Seafood should smell of the sea and not fishy. As soon as it begins to smell “malangsa” (to Ilongos that is), it is not fresh catch. Also not fresh seafood begin to release allergens which give undesirable reactions to people who are prone to seafood allergies. Alive is best but difficult to come by for many of us city folk. I think there is nothing better than fresh catch. These are the perks of living in the provinces. I remember weekend fishing trips with my father to catch “bulgan”, apahap to Manila folk. Charcoal grilled straight from the water. That was such a great treat!!!!

    May 5, 2008 | 4:37 pm


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  3. jules winnfield says:

    regarding your big ‘duhh’ tip, i once had an interesting conversation with a singaporean chef who is against the grain with this whole ‘live fish’ thing and that the only selling point of this is just theatrics.

    he claims a fish just freshly caught off its natural habitat has the best flavor –of course after it dies, that is, and that flavor is locked in by icing it down. and by keeping the fishies alive inside a dark styro ice chest, transporting them through long drives and rough terrain, and transferring them to an aquarium with pink lights people oggling them and morse coding away on the glass, is the most stressed-out fish ever available. and their meat is definitely affected.

    i see the point in my friend’s argument, but can all these chinese restaurants actually be wrong about live fish?

    May 5, 2008 | 5:44 pm

  4. Deedee says:

    I once had a wonderful experience observing the fish market in Bongao, Tawi Tawi. Gorgeous catch of the day glistening left and right. I even saw a squid with specks of black ink “glittering” up and down its body. parang magic!

    May 5, 2008 | 5:45 pm

  5. gita says:

    thanks for sharing all these very helpful tips!

    May 5, 2008 | 5:57 pm

  6. Ellen says:

    I love the pics MM especially the first one =)

    May 5, 2008 | 7:14 pm

  7. jenny says:

    Pardon my ignorance MM, but what are those small fish in the last photo, and what is that big fish next to them?

    May 5, 2008 | 7:29 pm

  8. Marketman says:

    jenny, I am not sure what the small fish are, but the large one was a 3 kilo or so talakitok or jack, one of many varieties of jacks. I actually bought that one and had it two ways, in soup and fried…it was delicious. Ellen, thanks. That kubotan or cuttlefish was alive and still changing its color as I took that photo. Deedee, I would love to see the fish market in Tawi-Tawi! jules, an interesting theory or premise, but I would still go for the live version. While I sort of buy the stressed muscle theory for pigs, cows, etc. with really extensive muscle structures, I am not sure it would apply to fish. Also, my best anecdotal guide is the fact that Japanese buyers of the highest quality tuna drive a pipe like instrument into large tuna to check the quality of the fish and to check if it has been kept frozen through for a long period of time… if the the fish is unfrozen, they pay top dollar. Also, with a long treatise by Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se explaining why he gets his suppliers to pack fish “standing up” in ice rather than lying down… he explains that that way, the fish isn’t crushed and damaged by the weight of the ice. Packing them like they are swimming, he thinks, results in a better quality meat… Hmmm, it certainly begs a taste comparison, no? Lex, you are right, it actually should have no smell… for it to be the best. :)

    May 5, 2008 | 7:41 pm

  9. joey says:

    Thanks for the tips! :) And I love that last photo :)

    May 5, 2008 | 8:30 pm

  10. The Knittymommy says:

    Thanks for the tips. I do however have a problem, we can’t seem to get fresh fish in our area of the US. They’re always on ice, and certainly dead. The eyes are certainly never ever glassy. Almost all the time, at the regular supermarkets, the fish are fileted and sliced up already. Do you have any tips for buying fish that is already processed?

    While they do sell some live fish in the asian markets, I can’t seem to get over how dirty the fish tanks are. I know that the sea is not clean, but I guess seeing it upclose, just grosses me out.

    Anyway, can I just simply ignore the dirt.

    May 5, 2008 | 9:37 pm

  11. Chris says:

    I guess it should be noted as well that freshness does not guarantee quality. A fish that died at its prime and stored properly would be of better quality than a live fish that has been languishing in a polluted tank for days. Stress is also very important for fish, not just cows and pigs. Tuna destined for the sashimi trade, for example, are stunned immediately by inserting a pin at the back of the head to prevent stressing it out. A stressed out tuna yields mushy flesh, and if it is allowed to twist and flip uncontrollably, it will have hematomas all over its body, driving quality downwards. So there is reason behind Jules’ friend’s beliefs.

    But what I think MM means by buying live fish is buying from a market just beside the sea where the fish are alive because of proximity, not from a market hundreds of miles from the source where fish arrive under induced coma or paralysis just for the sake of being able to say “hey, they are alive aren’t they?!?” Alive? Yes. But healthy? No.

    May 5, 2008 | 9:41 pm

  12. Apicio says:

    Aha an eternal verity from my putrefying Latin yet, piscis bene olet dum nihil olet. Fish smell well when they don’t smell of anything.

    May 5, 2008 | 9:56 pm

  13. kasseopeia says:

    I, too, loved the last photo. The composition was so beautiful that I was staring at my screen with my mouth unhimged for a good five minutes. Hehe…

    I honestly cannot bear to cook fish that was alive a few seconds before hitting the pan, except for hito – which I do not really like anyway. The way crabs and shrimp struggle against the heat of a pot turns me to jelly. Paano pa kung isda? Kaluoy kaayo!

    May 6, 2008 | 2:21 am

  14. Marketman says:

    Chris, well said. And yes I pretty much mean buying fish live at the source. Though I would still opt for a live fish in the as opposed to a dead and poorly transported one. Now as for fresh fish caught then killed and flash frozen and properly transported, now that might be better than a lot of our other fish which is poorly handled. Hmm, I wonder why lobsters and crabs don’t get the stressed out effect, or do they? I have to buy those alive whenever possible.

    May 6, 2008 | 8:57 am

  15. alicia says:

    This post and all the comments have taught me so much. I really never understood why people said look at the eyes, an now I do! I have always let my helpers choose the fish because I have lacked confidence in doing so, I will take my newfound knowledge with me to the market this weekend. Thanks guys!

    May 6, 2008 | 9:15 am

  16. Chris says:

    Oh, I’d have to add that like you, I’d prefer a live, stressed out fish over a dead one that has not been stored properly. Crabs and lobsters do succumb to stress after a while. Their muscles (i.e. edible flesh) tend to atrophy after being kept alive out of the water, without food. So the quality does go down, but it goes down slower than if it died and not flash frozen very soon after death. The flesh starts to decompose quickly after that. If you get crustacean with mushy flesh, that’s a very bad sign.

    May 6, 2008 | 11:12 am

  17. consol says:

    MM, your story about the cuttlefish reminded me of the time my friends and I were in Bolinao.

    I was assigned the task of cleaning two big specimens that our friend Edward had haggled for and bought from a fisherman right at the beach. Ordinarily I would just do my thing and get done in no time at all. However, I made the mistake of looking at the spots in the elongated bodies that, curiously, seemed to ‘blink’ alternately (for want of a better phrase). Edward told me that THAT is a sign of freshness, that the critters were recently hauled up from the sea, and that they were still alive. *Gulp!!* I felt so guilty, especially when I happened to also look into their (pleading but unblinking) eyes. I almost failed to do my assignment. However, with a whispered apology to the two critters and thanks for helping to sustain us, I quickly ripped out the heads, removed the plastic-like thingies at their backs, took out the innards, and rinsed both in the foaming sea. (Oh and did I mention that my friends threatened to put ME on the spit over the fire if I didn’t clean the cuttlefish? hah!) I marveled at how my entire fist fit inside the body cavity; the critters were really big.

    Yummy grilled cuttlefish for lunch!

    My qualms and my guilt rose to the air together with the smoke from the cooking fire right there on the beach.

    I’ll never forget that day in Bolinao :-)

    May 6, 2008 | 12:26 pm

  18. jules winnfield says:

    maybe if they maintained the aquariums to be similar to the ocean’s saltwater conditions and kept the live fish to rest for at least 7 days or so, away from pesky 4 to 8yo homo sapiens, then the fish would be stress-free and right for the cooking. higher cost but better flavor.

    and as chris says, same goes for crabs. when you crack a cooked crabclaw and you find a thin shriveled semblance of crabmeat hanging inside, then that’s a crab that’s been out of water way too long. but crack one that has meat immediately bursting out from right under the shell (and you even curse when the shell shreds embed into the chunky crabmeat), then that’s a freshie!!!

    so buy and cook on the same day. but if not, then buy and steam immediately, then store in freezer.

    May 6, 2008 | 1:05 pm

  19. Mila says:

    I used to shop with my mom at the market when I was a kid, and learned from her how to look for fresh fish. The eyes, the smell, and the gills, plus a quick poke on the skin. All the comments and the main post brought back memories of walking around the markets with her.

    May 7, 2008 | 4:31 pm

  20. Ipat says:

    MM, I understand it would be very difficult to catch reef fish live for food and transport them unless they are caught with cyanide. That is why many fishermen against cyanide fishing would like there to be a ban on the transport of live food fish such a lapu-lapu to prevent the use of cyanide on the reefs. Worth investigating, as the other methods of catching reef fish live are so difficult to do.

    May 11, 2008 | 9:21 am

  21. Dino says:

    Hi MM, I have a question! I’ve always wanted to try out dory fish. Where can I get them? Or better yet, do you know how it’s called in tagalog? Maybe that’ll be easier and I might find it in the nearest wet market. Thanks! :)

    Jun 26, 2008 | 11:32 pm

  22. Mark says:

    I want to buy bulk frozen fish in Manila. The kind that is used for smoked fish. I think it is bonito or makeral. Can somebody advice me of a good place.

    Apr 11, 2009 | 6:48 am


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