Monday, 21 May 2018


I am a Bengali who brought up on ‘Macher jhol and bhat’, that is fish curry and rice for you all. We have fish in both the meals and of more than one variety on holidays and when entertaining guests. So it is quite natural that I am expected to identify the best fish in the market and purchase it. But this quality was not ingrained in my genes; I learned it from my father during our weekend trips to the fish market.

This story is about my bonding with my father and how I could pick up the pearls of wisdom just by looking at him and asking him silly questions. When we were young the father and son bond was a more distant one based on respect, of course not without its share of love. Yet, there was a kind distance based on a mix of fear and respect which had its advantages but also the fact that there was an emotional gap in the bond that was tough to bridge. These days, however, with younger men becoming dads, the relation has met with a dynamic change. Younger dads today remember the equation which they shared with their own fathers and are making an effort to not repeat the same faults they noticed. But are they taking their children, both boys and girls, to the fish market to make them worldly wise? I doubt. I don’t see children tagging along their dads in the fish market any more. They stay in sanitized home environment, play virtual games on cell phones and watch unimaginative Kid’s TV. The social introduction of the child to the outside world is a father’s responsibility and my father did it amazingly well.

So how do we buy the best fish? There are some thumb rules that you need to follow while buying fish and making sure that it is fresh.

1.      Go to a reputable store or fishmonger.
2.      Ask what is the freshest or check what the catch of the day is.
3.      Don't be misguided by the term "fresh." Most landlocked areas selling fish usually have two types of fish - thawed or frozen, unless it is an upstanding vendor who really likes freshness.
4.      The smell of fresh fish is specific to its origin (sea, lake, river, fish pond) and it is pleasant and neutral. Spoiled fish has an unpleasant, sharp smell of trimethylamine (bad fish) and rot.
5.      Check the eyes: Eyes of fresh fish are bulging and shiny. Eyes of old fish are cloudy and sunken into the head. Before you handle the fish, check the eyes. They should be crystal-clear, plump, wet, and shiny, with no sunken features. If the eyes look good, you can bet with reasonable confidence that the fish is fresh and healthy. Once the fish begins to deteriorate, the eyes dry out, become cloudy, and sink in or shrivel away. This indicates an unhealthy or improperly-handled fish 
6.      Check the Fins - The tail and dorsal fins of the fish should be healthy-looking, wet, and intact. A fish that's been mishandled will have torn or ragged fins, while an older fish's fins will be dry and brittle. Torn and ragged fins probably belong to a fish that was netted or held for too long. 
7.      Check the Gills – The gills of fresh fish are moist. In old fish they are dry, covered with sticky slime, grayish-brown in color and smell bad. Healthy gills are of a nice, bright red color. A truly fresh fish should have gills that are vibrant red, not brown. When first caught, a fish's gills appear bright red, and slowly darken over time. The brighter the color, the fresher the fish. The gills should also feel clean and cold, not slimy. Mucus will build as time passes, too, so as the fish ages.

Healthy fish has moist bright red gills which are moist but not slimy

8.      Check the Skin- The skin in live and fresh fish is moist, must be unharmed and have a naturally metallic glow. Scales must be tightly attached to the body. The surface of healthy, fresh fish must be tight and shiny so that fish slides out of your hands. Discoloration and cracked skin are signs of rotting fish. Old or bad fish has already started losing its scales. When no longer fresh, the flesh becomes soft and tends to fall apart. The appearance of a fresh fish should be shiny and wet.
9.      Slime is equally distributed over the fish, it is clear and odorless. With time, slime gets increased, murky and dirty and has a sour smell.
10. Poke the flesh - The body of a fresh fish is firm and has a specific consistency and appearance. When pressed it should bounce back. Soft, grey and inelastic fish is old or bad. The fish should feel cold, wet, and slippery, but not sticky. When pressed, it should spring back to its natural shape, just like if you were to press on your own flesh. If it doesn't spring back, it is a sure sign that the meat has softened and and is no longer worthy of your money. Fish that has lost its firm shape is no longer fresh.
11. Touch the scales: Scales are designed to protect the fish from a harsh watery environment. When a fish is fresh, the scales will be shiny and firm, a veritable armor against the elements. Less-fresh fish will often shed scales as you run your hand over them, and they may appear dry and flaky.
12. Belly of a live and fresh fish is shiny and undamaged, and the anal opening is tight. Anal opening of old and bad fish sticks out and is yellow-brown in color.

Buy whole fish whenever possible – It is easier to determine the freshness of a whole fish rather than a previously cut fish. My father used to say that if I do not see the head of the fish still attached to the body it is not worth wasting time on it. Once purchased the fish seller will fillet it for you the way you would like. To keep fish fresh for longer, transport it in an insulated cooler bag. Fish should be the last thing you buy in a bazaar and after that go straight home. As soon as you get it home, carefully remove any guts, rinse it under running water then pat dry. Ideally you should put the masala on and cook it the same day. If that is not possible then add salt and turmeric and store in the refrigerator until the next day.

Buying butchered fish – If you have a small family then buying a large fish may be uneconomical. But gauging the freshness of a fish that has not been cut in front of your own eyes is difficult. If you prefer to buy filleted fish, these tips will help you choose the freshest product. For the most part, visual cues are enough to indicate a fresh piece of fish, but some tactile clues may help as well.

1.      Look for cracks, breaks, and pooling water - Look for cracks in the filet that run between the muscles and collagen sheaths (the white lines running through the fish). Breaks in the muscle itself tend to indicate mishandling. Natural separation of the muscles along the collagen sheaths indicate that the fish is not very fresh because enzymes naturally present in the muscle tissue are degrading the collagen, causing the muscles to start to tear under their own weight. Pooling water inside the container usually indicates that the fish is aging and losing its ability to hold moisture. 
2.      Inspect the color and consistency of the flesh - For white fish, such as rohu or pabda, the meat should look fairly translucent. If it is very opaque and extremely white, it's a sign that the flesh is not fresh. 
3.      For all fish, make sure the flesh is wet and glossy. Fish that is sticky, dry, or chalky has likely been handled improperly (held at warm temperatures), frozen and thawed several times, or is just plain old.
4.      Colour - the flesh should be bright and very saturated in color. Look for a clear color contrast between the fat and the muscle as this is the best indication of a fresh butchered fish. 

Next time you go to the fish market take your children along with you and pass on your knowledge to them. Listen closely to the fish seller; he will invariably be keen to teach your children and you a thing or two. Whenever I go to the Kaisarbag fish market in Lucknow I am always welcomed by loud greetings from fish sellers and their now elderly present generation successors, because they have known me since I was a child. And this acquaintance and old friendship is the surest guarantee of the freshness of the fish I purchase.

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