Ordering Older Fish was the Last Thing on my Mind Until I Became a Sushi Chef
“No, no, you never want to order fresh Sweet Shrimp.”
I thought Také san was joking. He had over fifteen years of experience. I only had two.
“Two to three-day-old Sweet Shrimp is the best,” Také san said. “The trickiest part is to watch its texture.”
According to Také san, fresh sweet shrimp lacks umami. After a couple of days, it starts to produce a sweeter savory taste. To maximize its taste, you want to let the shrimp “age” as long as possible, but there is a threshold for its texture. When the shrimp’s texture becomes too soft, most of us, humans find it unpleasant.
I guess I didn’t know much about fish. I always thought the fresher the fish, the better it tastes, but I learned that’s not always the case.
Paul Johnson, the owner of Monterey Fish Market in San Francisco is another person who taught me about the taste advantage of “older” fish.
“You don’t eat tuna, twenty-four hours after it’s caught. It has to settle down. The perfect amount of time is five to seven days. Same with swordfish. The Norwegians and the Swedes figured out to send salmon to the market in five days, or else, there is no flavor to the fish. When you eat fish directly out of the water, oftentimes, it doesn’t have a lot of flavors.”
At a sushi restaurant I used to work in Los Angeles, the owner/sushi chef brought back “live” Halibut from a fish supplier.
“This was alive when I got it,” he looked excited.
We gutted, cleaned the beautiful shinny fish and sampled a small part from its tail. Everyone immediately expelled what they put in their mouth.
The “live” Halibut had no taste, its flesh tough like rubber. Not what we expected.
We decided to let it sit and age, or “let it sleep” in Japanese. We kept it wrapped tightly in plastic, over ice in the commercial refrigerator.
On the third day, we tried it again. The flesh became much softer, but it still had lacked savory taste.
On the fifth day, it finally started to taste like Halibut we knew — tender, sweet long-lasting umami aftertaste.
“The Norwegians and the Swedes figured out to send salmon to the market in five days, or else, there is no flavor to the fish.”
— Paul Johnson, Monterey Fish Market
Now that the Halibut was servable, we made Sashimi and nigiri, but we never told our customers how old it had been “sleeping” in our refrigerator.
“We have nice five-day-old Halibut today. How about Sashimi?”
That was not what our customers were expecting to hear from the sushi chef. That was not the reason they came to the sushi bar. They were expecting fresh fish, not old fish. In their mind, the fresher the fish, the better it tastes, just like I used to think.
In the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Jiro’s oldest son talks about aging Bluefin Tuna for up to two weeks to maximize its taste. Flavor, texture and time. To determine when is the best time to serve the fish is a critical skill for a master sushi chef.
“Consumers need to study with a more critical eye. It’s more important to look at the characteristics of fish. It’s more important to ask, how it’s caught, where it’s caught and if it’s in the season. That’s what people should look for,” Paul Johnson says.
Knowing this, I always felt awkward answering this question at the sushi bar: “What’s fresh today?”
I understand some use it as an icebreaker, a quick hello perhaps.
“Everything” is what they want to hear from the sushi chef, but as I know now, not everything is fresh, and I would not recommend or serve you the freshest fish anyway.
If I did, I would be doing my job.
But then, I don’t have the next ten minutes talking about the science of aging fish.
Neither my customer.
“Hey, how come you guys don’t have a fish tank behind the Sushi Bar? Would that keep your fish fresher?” the customer continued.
“They look good, but the fish don’t taste great,” I said.
“Because they are not healthy.”
Fish swim in the open ocean and catch their prey. Imagine how you’d feel to being taken out of your home and placed into a small fish tank, not getting enough exercise, and not getting enough food.
The change in the environment can cause stress for the fish. Understanding this, can we really say that the fish in the fish tank are as healthy as when they were swimming in the ocean?
They are not.
We tend to think automatically that a live fish is fresher and tastes better than a dead one. But, they’re not always at their optimal health, even if they’re alive. The fish in the fish tank usually taste inferior to properly stored, aged, dead fish.
“What’s fresh today?” is what you should avoid asking the sushi chef at the Sushi Bar.
Instead, the next time you sit at the sushi bar, I recommend you ask this:
“Which fish is at its prime today?”
or simply this:
“Which fish do you recommend today?”
If you enjoy this story, here is another story you may like.