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Buying sushi-grade fish

Can someone give me a short primer on how fish is "graded"? For example, what is the difference between sushi grade fish and non-sushi grade fish? How hazardous is it to use high quality, non-sushi grade fish for sushi?

I am often in Spain for an extended stay and sometimes I go to the fish market, which has incredibly fresh, to buy fish to prepare sushi at home. Things are never labeled as "sushi grade" and I don't think most would know what that was if I ask. So are there some basic questions that I can ask to determine whether the fish I get can be used for sushi/sashimi?

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  1. My understanding is that "sushi grade" is either immaculately fresh or has been frozen at very cold temperatures, dry ice or lower, for a longish period of time (maybe a week or so, to kill parasites). So, I've read that most all sushi in restaurants has been previously frozen, but maybe this isn't true at some very high quality restaurants.

    Notice that even the frozen fish must be quickly eaten upon thawing to maintain quality and taste good. "Sushi grade" fish at markets can sit out for some time before someone is willing to pay the higher price. When I buy fish to make sushi at home I usually go to a Japanese market (I'll add that I try to live in towns that have Japanese markets for this reason). I'd order over the web if you don't have a market in town.

    On the other hand, I've know people who buy salmon from the local chain market and make sushi with it. The argument against this is that the ice displays at markets is a great place for parasites to travel around and sample the fish! Swordfish, for instance, is famous for giant worms... once I learned this I've never had swordfish again.

    1. I believe that the only fish that needs to be frozen and is still considered sushi grade is salmon. Salmon contains parasites and i understand that any salmon anyone has ever eaten at a sushi bar, has been frozen. As far as the other fish are concerned, i think that if it is very fresh and caught from clean (relatively) waters, it should be fine.

      1. There are no government regulations in the U.S. regarding the grading of fish -- vendors are free to call it "sushi grade" or whatever. It's strictly buyer beware, so know your fishmonger and trust your eyes/nose. It's my understanding that the only fish that are parasite safe are tuna and everything else that's been frozen.

        3 Replies
        1. re: pikawicca

          No, actually you are wrong -- the United States FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has passed regulations on what is "sushi grade" fish. It is required to be flash frozen at -35 degrees for 15 hours, or to be frozen for one week's time at -4 degrees (Farenheit). This requirement is to kill parasites that can be found in all types of fish used for sushi. Also the fish must be oceanic -- fresh water fish is NEVER used for sushi.

            1. re: najoyal

              No, actually, I'm not. The FDA has never created a category of "sushi grade fish." It's a marketing gimmick. The FDA has created regulations governing fish that is to be served raw:
              # (A) Except as specified in ¶ (B) of this section, before service or sale in ready-to-eat form, raw, raw-marinated, partially cooked, or marinated-partially cooked fish other than molluscan shellfish shall be:

              * (1) Frozen and stored at a temperature of -20°C (-4°F) or below for 168 hours (7 days) in a freezer; or

              * (2) Frozen at -35°C (-31°F) or below until solid and stored at -35°C (-31°F) for 15 hours.

              # (B) If the fish are tuna of the species Thunnus alalunga, Thunnus albacares (Yellowfin tuna), Thunnus atlanticus, Thunnus maccoyii (Bluefin tuna, Southern), Thunnus obesus (Bigeye tuna), or Thunnus thynnus (Bluefin tuna, Northern), the fish may be served or sold in a raw, raw-marinated, or partially cooked ready-to-eat form without freezing as specified under ¶ (A) of this section.

          1. Thanks this is all very helpful!

            1. As pointed out above, "Sushi-quality" is a marketing term. Unlike other meats where "Prime" and "Choice" actually have standards and meaning, if Stop and Shop (not to pick on them) wants to call fish "sushi-grade" they are free to do so.

              Very fresh fish will have a crisp, more desirable texture and no offensive odors, making it better for eating raw. Frozen and thawed fish has a much less desirable texture.

              Parasites are another matter. They are found in most fish in the market, and fish isn't routinely screened. Even frozen fish can have parasites, unless it has been frozen with a process designed to kill them (very cold for a long time). Most won't cause you any harm, but some can. This is part of the risk with eating anything raw.

              1. I always start by announcing to the fishmonger that I plan to make sushi - I've always been satisfied with what they've recommended and they (fishmongers that I've been to) take the request for 'freshest possible for eating raw' very seriously, at times turning me away because what I wanted was not fresh enough. Have never had a bad experience; freshest fish has an inoffensive smell (almost odorless really).
                In Spain, what they consider fresh is what has come in from the sea that same morning, so I'd worry less!

                1 Reply
                1. re: leeds

                  I have a similar method and I've never had any problems, though I always go to the same place, might not work everywhere. And though there is no formal 'stamp' that says sushi grade, my understanding is that if a store advertises a fish as ok to eat raw, the inspectors hold it up to a higher level of scrutiny and employ a separate battery of questions. Again, there's no 'stamp', but there are recommendations (not requirements) in place on how to handle fish that is to be eaten raw.

                2. I was recently served bigeye tuna sushi at a restaurant, which I found surprising since I one read in a Jeffrey Steingarten article about how it's an inferior quality tuna. It was...pretty dismal. Are there certain species of tuna that are optimal sushi grade? I know the fattier the fish, the better the sushi.

                  1. This is a complex subject, from people that exaggerate to those ignore or dismiss the risks. Here's an article from a very knowledgeable guy closer to the latter:

                    http://www.eatsushi.com/article.asp?X...

                    There is not, however, an FDA rule specific to "sashimi grade fish"; at least that I've been able to find. Keep in mind that carpaccio is often made with fish. Generally , though, the guidelines that apply to ultra fresh fish are used: clear eyes, very . red gills, no fishy smell, etc., etc. The flesh should also have little or no connective tissue in it, this tissue "melts away" with cooking.

                    Thoughts: You may want to ask if it's a good fish for carpaccio. Also, is there a Spanish word for sushi or sashimi?

                    In the U.S., the FDA requires that fish sold to served raw be frozen to *very* low temps. But enforcement is left up to local officials. Also, even fish sold to be cooked is often served rare or at least not cooked enough to kill all parasites. Tuna is flash frozen at sea because of the time that deep water ships take to get back.

                    http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~ear/FLRECSA...

                    The risk of getting parasites from raw ocean fish is real and rises with fish that are closer to the shore. Salmon, living part of it's life in freshwater, is even higher. But so is dying in a fiery car crash on the way to a restaurant, movie, etc. The reported incidences of parasites is extremely low, although of course there are likely unreported incidences.

                    Our digestive systems are very good at eliminating parasites, but certainly not perfect as the parasites have evolved with resistances.

                    My personal approach? I have a *very* cold deep freezer -- cold enough to preserve the texture as well as kill the parasites. (It has to get very cold, otherwise the parasites just go into hibernation.) So I freeze all the fish (except tuna) that I use at home, even those I intend to cook. At the sushi bar I take the risk - after all, I drove there!

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Richard 16

                      This is one of the most misued terms in the food world... as a poster said above, there is no such thing as sushi-grade in the same vein as you buy beef or eggs. There are no FDA requirements for the name - if someone has found them, post the link. I've seen FDA recommendations for people eating raw fish involving parasite destruction, but that is different than a set of regulatory requirements.

                      And the type of fish has nothing to do with sushi - though freshwater fish are not recommended for a much higher risk of parasites - you can eat Pacific Turdfish sushi if you wanted. Bigeye isn't as flavorful as bluefin, for example, but sometimes less flavorful tuna is mixed up with something else - aka the "spicy tuna roll". Spicy tuna rolls are a nice American invention, but they also are a nice way for chefs to dump off lesser quality or less-than-really-fresh fish.

                      If you are experimenting with sushi, start with the bulletproof stuff - shrimp, smoked salmon, scallop, eel, fake crab - those are cooked (with heat or with enzymes, in the case of scallops). If you wish to be more adventurous, find a good fish place that has stuff fresh and learn to recognize the signs of spoilage.