Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fishy Debate: Fresh vs Frozen

With an increasing awareness about the dangers that lurk within the meaty abyss, more people are now leaning towards the leaner, supposedly, healthier choice. But the perceived 'freshness' of fish raises many more eyebrows than its red fleshed counterpart does. In that regard, the debate over which is a better choice for fish-- fresh or frozen-- is a long drawn out one.

Let us first put some definitions on the plate. Fresh fish is that which has never EVER been frozen, right from the time it is caught to the time it reaches the table for eating. Frozen fish falls in the opposite category and has braved the cold in the freezer at some point.

The most important factor that affects the quality of fish is time. The fish our purveyors call 'fresh' has usually spent several lonely days (and nights) on ice before we get to buy it at the supermarket or fish supplier. Though this fish may technically be fresh, in all honesty, it may not pass the 'freshness' test.

To tell if a whole fish is fresh (a.k.a, has not spent a lot of time outside water and will taste good), you will have to get down and dirty with the fellow. Here are a few tips to help you decide.

Smell : The single best indicator of a fish's freshness is its aroma. Bring the belly of the fish to your nose and take a long deep breath. Fresh fish will have a clean scent of the sea. Though this may sound contradictory, by no means should a fish smells like fish.

Gills: Open the gill flap and look at the gills. Bright red gills are a sign that the fish could possibly be fresh. Stale fish will have dull brown gills.

Eyes: Clear bulging eyes means the fish was caught not too long ago while cloudy sunken eyes could mean otherwise.

Touch: With one finger, gently push down on the flesh of the fish. If the fish is relatively fresh, the flesh will spring back quickly. However, if the fish is old, it will take longer for the flesh to spring back. If it doesn't spring back at all, that's a really bad sign.

However, none of the above criteria will indicate to you whether the fish has ever been frozen or not.

I, personally, grew up in a small city near the coast of Kerala in India and was lucky enough to be fed  fish and shellfish that was caught the same day or the day before. Given this fact, I will never choose a frozen fish at my local fish monger over the fresh one, even if the price difference is drastic. Not everyone has this luxury.

Most commercially available fish that are sold frozen these days are individually quick frozen (I.Q.F) within hours of being caught (sometimes while at sea itself) which in a way maintains that same freshness level in the fish. Does freezing the fish affect its final texture after cooking. Yes, to a small extent. But not enough to justify buying 5 day old fresh fish over the I.Q.F one.

Most fine dining restaurants that advertise 'fresh' fish on their menu are probably lying. They may have received the fish in its fresh state but they're more than likely to be keeping it in the deep freezer and taking out portions as needed.

There are exceptions to this though. At Le Bernardin, seafood temple of New York, where I worked for a year, almost all the fish was served fresh. If it didn't get sold within a day, it would be frozen and used later for staff meals. Impressive but also quite expensive.

It just makes more economic and logical sense to freeze the fish if you're someone who doesn't have access to fresh, local fish. Besides, the average person wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the two anyway.

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