Ask Peter: Sashimi-grade fish
Can you explain the term sashimi-grade. I see it mentioned in recipes but never see it labelled that way in stores. Is it an industry term for “very fresh fish” or is it superior in other ways? Thanks, Alice
You’re correct. The term refers to the best quality of fish that you could possibly find. Generally it’ll be listed for a dish that will be served either raw or seared, and so obviously the fresher the better.
The great thing with fish in New Zealand, not everywhere of course, is that it’s pretty darn fresh most of the time. Many of my friends have a boat, have access to a bach or a jetty — or even a river mouth (for kahawai) — where they can catch their own fish, so sashimi-grade is nothing to worry about.
If you’re making sashimi or fish-based sushi, you’ll soon know if the fish you bought from your local shop isn’t good because it will have an odour that lets you know. Either 1) it smells fine, but maybe not to be eaten raw or 2) it’ll be fine cooked in white sauce for a fish pie, or 3) there is absolutely no way you’d do anything with this except use it as bait.
I’ve been to Japan just once, back in 2008, and as expected the fish there was incredibly fresh, and all would have ticked the “sashimi-grade” box. However, perhaps the freshest saltwater fish I’ve ever eaten, and apologies in advance for the fish lovers among you, was in Chicago in 2003. I was there as part of a three-city tour with the department store Marshall Fields, that also included Minneapolis and Detroit. The Chicago outpost was then the largest department store in America. Famous residents have included American super-chefs Rick Bayless, Rick Tramonto, Grant Achatz and (recently deceased) Charlie Trotter, along with Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama.
My week in America was a wonderful experience in so many ways and the culinary scene was definitely a big part of that. Those who know their geography will be aware that this fabulous and populous metropolis (which in my mind rivals New York as a must-visit city) sits on Lake Michigan in Illinois — just less than 10km from the North Atlantic. Lake Michigan is huge and has a vast amount of fish — but saltwater it doesn’t have.
My American hosts couldn’t have been nicer and had organised several dinners, including a wonderful one in Charlie Trotter’s kitchen (he later went on to write a cover note for the American edition of my third cookbook) and they managed to get me a booking at a Japanese restaurant that was the hottest place to dine at the time called Heat, which is now closed. The ingredients they used were phenomenal and they flew in most of their fish from Japan every day.
However, they were famous for one particular dish, which was sashimi cut from a living fish. The sashimi was presented on a sort-of-living fish. I’ve seen the same in the fish markets in Hong Kong since but it was slightly unnerving at the time. The fish was filleted without cutting into its main organs, the skin was removed, and the flesh sliced sashimi style. The slices were then put back on the skeleton, while the fish still “breathed”.
Did it taste amazing? Not really. Did it seem it was worth the agony for the fish? No. Was it fresh? Yes, definitely. Would I have it again? NO. Interestingly, the flesh was very firm and chewy, which I now understand was because rigor mortis had set in.
I’ve eaten fresh fish for years, freshly caught in the waters of New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Turkey and none have been as chewy as this. I wonder if it was simply experiencing the agony of what was, in reality, an already dead fish.
I love a freshly shucked raw oyster, clam or mussel, and these are also alive when we eat them. But somehow, I just don’t want to see the mouth opening, the lungs expanding, and the muscles twitching. It’s just too fresh!
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes here.