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As a non-Japanese and beginner to sushi, there may be several things that you find intimidating. While it may take some time to get understand and used to the sushi jargons, one of the most important things that you must know right away is ‘sushi-grade fish’.
What is sushi grade fish? It refers to the freshest or highest quality of fish that is safe to be eaten raw. It implies that the fish was treated with extra care after being caught and also during the transit to the point of sale to rule out any risk of foodborne diseases.
Whether you plan to make sushi, sashimi, poke or any other delicacy that involves raw fish, sushi-grade is the highest standard for raw or lightly cooked fish and seafood. However, you will be slightly disappointed to know that there might be certain loopholes in the way the fish is treated from the ocean to the table.
While you can be confident about the quality of raw fish labeled as ‘sushi-grade’ in the supermarket, it is important to be careful when buying from a local fishmonger. As the term is not strictly regulated by the FDA, it is important to find a reliable fishmonger who understands the meaning of ‘sushi-grade’.
Sushi-grade Raw Fish In Supermarkets
Tuna and salmon are the two most common varieties of sushi grade fish you can find in a supermarket or grocery store. However, the restaurants may serve you sushi containing raw yellowtail scallops, squid, and sea urchin. Does that make you wonder from where the restaurants get them?
Sushi-grade fish is expensive and the supermarkets or your local fishmonger cannot afford to have a lot in inventory. However, a popular sushi restaurant makes and sells hundreds of raw fish dishes in a day, hence they get their supply from the wholesale markets.
For example, every day the popular Tsukiji Market in Tokyo exports sushi-grade fish to restaurants around the world. Some chefs are extremely particular about the quality of fish they offer to their customers and they go to any extents to get them from the best possible sources.
However, given the fact that you are not an experienced sushi chef who knows raw fish like the back of his hand, you can only rely on trust and your instincts. While there is some alarming news about sushi-grade being used as a marketing tactic only, please remember that it is in the best interest for any fish market or restaurant to ensure the safety of their customers.
FDA Guidelines Regarding Sushi-grade Fish
While the raw fish is not closely regulated by the FDA, the organization has clearly set the guidelines for freezing fish at a specific temperature to kill parasites, but the enforcement of the law has been left to the area health officers.
According to the FDA guidelines, parasites can be destroyed by freezing raw fish or seafood at -4°F (-20°C) or lower for at least 168 hours (7 days).
Another option is to freeze raw fish at -31°F (-35°C) or lower until the flesh turns solid and then store it at -4°F (-20°C) for 24 hours.
You may also freeze raw fish at a temperature of -31°F (-35°C) or less until the flesh turns solid and then store at 31°F (-35°C) or lower for at least 15 hours.
The above freezing conditions set by FDA applies to all types of raw fish or seafood except yellowfin tuna, bluefin tuna, and farmed salmon as they are highly resistant to parasites. Hence, they require minimal processing to be considered safe for raw consumption.
Most of the fish caught these days are flash frozen to extremely low temperatures as soon as they are taken out of the sea to kill any parasites that may be present. Once out of the water, the fish is immediately bled, gutted and flash frozen within 8 hours.
Some fish are more susceptible to parasites than others, so it is important to be familiar with the fish species before just purchasing something with a sushi grade certification on it, especially if you intend on eating raw. Here are the most common types of fish (excluding shellfish) used in raw sushi or sashimi.
Understanding The Risks Associated Eating Unsafe Raw Fish
Some traditionalists claim that raw fish has been consumed in certain parts of the world from the time when the concept of freezing was unknown. According to a researcher, parasites in raw fish are normal like ladybugs in a farmer’s market and there’s no need to fret about them.
Interestingly, despite the FDA’s guidelines about freezing raw fish to a certain temperature to eliminate the risks of parasites, very few cases of bacterial infection caused by eating raw fish have been recorded in American medical literature. Even in Japan, where freezing fish is not a necessity for sashimi, infection rates are rather small.
So, why is there such as fuss about raw food consumption? Well, the risks are typically associated with freshwater fish and certain species of anadromous fish such as salmon. They may be vulnerable to infection caused by the presence of tapeworms that are extremely hazardous.
Other common parasites that infect most marine fish are roundworms or nematodes. It is best to avoid raw fish carrying these parasites, but any live parasite that gets into your gut will at the most cause some discomfort such as nausea and stomach pain, similar to food poisoning.
Types Of Fish That Are Safe For Raw Consumption
There are several factors and steps that goes into ensuring that a fish is safe for raw consumption in dishes like sushi, sashimi, and poke. Here is a list of fish that are typically considered as safe to eat raw if they have a sushi-grade label on it.
Tuna tops the list and I have already mentioned above that it is more resistant to parasites. So, you don’t have to worry about eating albacore, bonito, skipjack, bigeye, bluefin and yellowfin tuna.
Salmon: When you are buying fish for raw consumption, you must always choose farmed salmon instead of the ones that thrive in wild habitat. As the wild salmon spends a considerable part of their life in freshwater, there is a high risk of them contracting parasites. Farm-raised salmon is given a parasite-free diet, hence they are relatively safe.
Yellowtail: Known as hamachi in Japanese, the yellowtail fish is a popular ingredient used in nigiri and maki rolls. Although it contains less risk of parasitic contamination, the raw meat of hamachi can be high in mercury, so make sure you eat it in moderation.
Halibut or Flounder: This is often known as Hirame in Japanese, but again this fish has a low risk of parasites hence sushi-grade is enough to put your worries to rest.
Saba or Aji Mackerel: This species of fish is marinated with vinegar before serving. While there is a low risk of parasites, it may be high in mercury.
Seabass: Often referred to as Suzuki or tai, the raw flesh of this fish is always cured with vinegar. It may contain a high percentage of mercury, hence it should be eaten in moderation.
All types of farmed fish contain less risk of bacterial contamination as they are raised in an aquaculture environment, hence they are safe to be eaten raw. However please note that any type of freshwater fish should never be consumed raw as they are highly vulnerable to parasites.
Tips For Buying Sushi-grade Fish From Fishmonger And Supermarket
Local fish seller
Buying sushi-grade fish for the first time can be slightly nerve-wracking if you have not done this before. As you will be shelling out a good amount of money to buy the highest quality fish, it is essential to ensure that it’s safe to eat. Here are a few tips to help you buy the right thing.
When purchasing raw fish from your local fishmonger, make sure you get it from a reputed seller who knows what is sushi-grade. Buy from a place that received a regular shipment and has a knowledgeable staff. You may consider asking the neighboring sushi restaurants from where they get their supply.
Sometimes your local fishmonger may not have sushi-grade fish right away but he may be able to get some for you if you tell in advance. When buying fish for the first time from a fishmonger, here are a few questions you must ask.
How do they define ‘sushi-grade’ quality?
Where does their supply of fish come from?
How long it has been in the shop and was it properly frozen?
Was the freezing temperature maintained during transit?
Is the equipment used to process the fish sanitized?
Besides asking the above questions to the fishmonger, you must also rely on your own instincts and senses of touch, feel, and smell before buying raw fish.
When buying sushi-grade fish from a supermarket or grocery store, you need to be more careful and do a few quick tests to ensure you are buying the right stuff. Here are a few aspects you need to consider:
- Fish should smell of seawater, fresh and mild. It should not be fishy or spoilage -like. The outer skin should not feel slimy when touched.
- The eyes should be clear, shiny and slightly bulged. If they are sunken, this raises a red flag.
- Flesh should be firm with red blood lines, and it should spring back when pressed. The gills should be red, without any smell. If the flesh sinks in the area where you pressed, then it is not sushi-grade. The scales should be intact with the skin.
- Watch out for any signs of darkening, discoloration, or drying around the edges of the fillets. Seafood (scallop, shrimp and lobster) flesh should have a pearl-like appearance with almost no odor.
- Always check the details like time and temperature printed on the package of frozen seafood. This information indicates the conditions in which the product was stored. Buy frozen seafood from grocery stores only if they have these details mentioned on the package.
- Avoid buying fish fillets that are labelled as ‘previously frozen’. While they may still smell fresh, this type of fish may not be suitable for raw consumption.
- Avoid buying packaged fish or seafood from supermarket or grocery store if the packet is torn, crushed or open. If there are signs of ice-crystals or frost, this means the fish may have been kept outside and then refrozen, so it’s not suitable for raw consumption.
- Touch the frozen sushi-grade fish from outside the package with your hands. Sushi-grade fish should feel hard like a rock. If the flesh is cold, but soft or bendable then be sure that it is not the best quality for your sushi dinner.
I have created an in-depth guide for sushi beginners to help them with where to find sushi grade fish to prepare this Japanese delicacy at home.
Storing Sushi-Grade Fish After Purchasing
After you have bought the sushi-grade fish, you will need to take due care of its transportation to reduce any risk of bacterial contamination. The fish should be packed with ice and refrigerated as soon as you arrive home. If you plan to consume raw fish within 2 days, storing in the refrigerator is fine. If not, wrap the fish tightly in a moisture-proof paper or plastic foil and store inside the freezer.
Depending on when you plan to use the fish, thaw the frozen fish completely by keeping it inside the refrigerator (this is important to prevent the temperature dropping to the danger zone). You should never thaw frozen fish at room temperature as the edges will be vulnerable to bacterial infection while the mid area still remains frozen.
When preparing sushi-grade fish, keep your working surface, tools, and hands properly sanitized to avoid the risk of cross-contamination from other sources.
Related Article: Do You Need Sushi Grade Fish To Make Sushi?
Will I die if I eat infected raw fish?
To those who think the extremes, please be assured that you are not going to die by eating raw fish containing parasites. However, you will experience certain discomforts associated to food poisoning. Symptoms may be appetite loss, fever, vomiting, and stomach pain. In severe cases, you may develop skin lesions, swelling, itching, and rashes. Consult a doctor immediately.
How can I stay safe?
When dining out, make sure you eat sushi only at popular restaurants. As the reputed establishments have a huge demand for sushi, this means they will always have a fresh supply of raw fish. When making sushi at home, buy the highest quality fish from a reliable fishmonger or you may get it online from Catalina Offshore Products, a safe and trusted source for seafood.
Can I eat sushi without raw fish?
Yes, you can. If you find raw fish intimidating, play safe by ordering sushi rolls containing cooked fillings. There are some really delicious cooked sushi rolls that you can order to even try making them at home. I have written an article that talks about 15 most popular cooked sushi rolls to order, find it here.
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