HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >
What have you made lately? Tell us about it

Fish market etiquette

roz Apr 20, 2009 11:10 AM


Many experts on buying fish recommend that you actually smell fish filets before purchasing them. Will fish markets let you do this? What's the best way to ask? I've often been "burned" buying filets that looked OK, but then smelled off when I unwrapped them at home.



  1. caramelkarma Apr 25, 2009 11:05 AM

    I have been a seafood clerk for about three years. I don't see anything wrong with a customer asking to smell a product for purchase, especially with the cost of some items skyrocketing. I normally place the item in a plastic bag, and hand it over the counter. It eliminates the need to touch it at all! I work in a department with several other people, and even when we all use our better judgement, things can be missed. A customer wanted to buy some calamari steak last week, and as I lifted it on to the scale I got a noseful of fishy odor. I quickly let her know that the squid was past it's prime, and offered her any other item for $5.99lb as a replacement. We have sold bad fish before, I'm ashamed to admit, but the best thing you can do it that unfortunate situation, is to let us know what happened so we can fix it and pay better attention to the situation. Feedback, negative and positive, is essential to your satisfaction.

    1 Reply
    1. re: caramelkarma
      Das Ubergeek Apr 26, 2009 04:45 PM

      A brilliant idea -- and one I'm going to suggest the next time I get the "ooooooh don't touch it, ew!" reaction.

    2. Das Ubergeek Apr 24, 2009 08:45 PM

      Honestly, just ask.

      "I think I want some of the tilapia. Can I smell it please? I won't touch it."

      I have asked this in every single fish market I have ever shopped in and have gotten exactly three responses:

      1. "Of course, here you go!" (in various languages, 98% of the time, up to and including a lesson on what a fresh branzino looked like, eyes, gills, etc.)
      2. "Um, let me rub a piece of tissue on it and you can smell the tissue." (at Henry's in Fullerton, CA, 1.9% of the time)
      3. "No, there's no need." (at Whole Foods in Tustin, CA, exactly once)

      When I was told at Whole Foods that I didn't need to, I said politely, "I always ask to smell fish, just in case." The fishmonger got offended and said something slightly impolite to me and moved on to the next customer. I went to go get the manager, who was a petite Asian lady, who walked straight back there, read the fishmonger the Riot Act, and I smelled the fish.

      Guess what? It was fishy and ammoniac. She agreed too, the fish was retired, and I went to the Japanese market in Costa Mesa, where they treat fish as though it were as expensive as caviar.

      The moral of the story is that if they're telling you there's no need to smell their fish, that should be a big signal: DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, DANGER!

      I have a cold right now, but needed to buy fish for dinner, and asked another patron to smell it for me. I got a strange look, but I explained the issue and he obllged. I don't know if you need to go that far, but I don't like paying $8+ a pound for fish and getting Monday's castoffs.

      At the risk of betraying my Jersey heritage, someone is going to buy the bad fish, and it is up to you to make sure that person is not you. If you do get home and they smell off when you unwrap them, you should take them straight back with the receipt and have your money back or a new, better piece of fish -- which you should smell.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Das Ubergeek
        coll Apr 25, 2009 06:24 AM

        If I got bad fish, I would definitely ask to smell any fish I bought there in the future. Just to let them know that I know what's what. But I wouldn't be going back there much after that anyway!

        I have a local guy that I went into about 6 years ago when I moved here, and he said, We're open all week but I advise you to only buy our fish on Thursday, Friday or Saturday. And this was the owner. The place hardly does any business, except for the fresh horseradish they make. So I pass him by (can't fault him for honesty, but still) and drive 20 minutes to a place that has never let me down in 20 plus years, in my old neighborhool. It's worth it.

        1. re: Das Ubergeek
          Sal Vanilla Apr 25, 2009 07:24 AM

          A nice cautionary fish tale. You had me laughing at the thought of asking another customer to smell the fish. I would have gladly lent you my nose.

          1. re: Das Ubergeek
            jaykayen Apr 26, 2009 05:58 PM

            kudos to you and the manager.

          2. kchurchill5 Apr 22, 2009 06:33 AM

            I like to smell the fish and I just ask. It is the only way to be sure, no matter how well you know your fish guy.

            1. f
              FoodyGirly Apr 21, 2009 10:25 AM

              Unfortunately, you can't judge the freshness of your fish, most times, just from the smell of the fish shop. The few that I go to are all European and most if not all carry salt cod, which as many know smells extremely fishy and tends to permeate the entire area, especially since it's rarely covered. The shops that I get my seafood at have all the fresh whole fish on display on open display areas on ice and allow you to put a plastic bag over your hand and feel them, smell them, etc. I can't say I've ever asked to smell the filets I've bought though, but I'm sure they would allow it.

              1 Reply
              1. re: FoodyGirly
                small h Apr 21, 2009 03:54 PM

                Your post made me wonder: how about if you ask for a plastic bag or glove, rub the fish, and then smell the glove? That seems pretty sanitary, and I can't see a fish monger objecting to it.

                Also, it will remind you that it's been too long since you've watched Spinal Tap.

              2. Paulustrious Apr 21, 2009 06:42 AM

                I always do. The one exception to this is my local Chinese supermarket. Many of the fish are still swimming round in tanks. But a lot of the 'white' people can't stand watching the fish be pulled from the tank and whacked, then gutted while it is still flopping around. Took my wife a long time to accept this, especially after the first visit. While we were going through the checkout the fish jumped in the bag. She screamed and dropped it.

                Another fish market by us leaves the head by the steaks / fillets. The gills and eyes are the give away.

                In terms of being sanitary, why should smelling fish be any different to smelling a mango? Smelling the store doesn't work in many Asian markets. The presence of durian , salted fish and cows feet soaking in brine overpowers just about everything.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Paulustrious
                  MGZ Apr 21, 2009 10:05 AM

                  I can't imagine not smelling or, in the case of a whole fish, touching/inspecting seafood I am thinking of buying. In fact, I have on occassion asked to taste a piece. If the clerk hesitates to let me smell/taste, I am concerned. More often than not, they steer me towards the freshed product in the case (then again, I am probably that "weird guy who wants to taste"!).

                  1. re: Paulustrious
                    SQHD Apr 21, 2009 10:07 AM

                    OK - here's one situation where you shouldn't ask to smell a fish... when it has the capability of slapping you in the face with it's tail. Good story Paulustrious!

                  2. Caroline1 Apr 21, 2009 06:31 AM

                    I don't understand your use of the word, "etiquette." What kind of "etiquette" is involved with a fishmonger who would sell you smelly, off-peak fish? Things work both ways, you know. With the price of fish these days, I have NO reservations about asking to smell a fish. If the market or the guy behind the counter object, fine. I'll buy my fish somewhere else. No problem.

                    1. z
                      ziggylu Apr 20, 2009 04:04 PM

                      I don't have a true fish monger near me (or even far from me) in my Phoenix area neighborhood. Finding good fish here can be a challenge. The few places I am willing to buy fish from I ALWAYS ask. Usually I don't get a negative response with the exception of the Whole Foods by my house. Without fail everytime the person behind the counter gives me a hard time and indicates that there should eb no need. Unfortunately, particularly because the WF by my house seems to be a low volume store, there is ALWAYS a need here to look close and take a whiff. I've stopped buying fish there as the quality isn't what it should be. The other smaller market near me always let me smell and doesn't give me a hard time. Even there however I've passed on items that weren't fresh(just last week actually trying to buy some wild salmon, didn't smell fresh...sure enough when I asked had come in three days before).

                      I miss having multiple options for quality fresh fish like when I was in Seattle...as long as I'm in phoenix I'll definitely be asking for a sniff before purchasing.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: ziggylu
                        Yukari Apr 20, 2009 08:48 PM

                        My husband is a buyer at Tsukiji. In Japan we shop around at many different seafood shops and he has no problems smelling and even touching the fish, to see how the texture is, as well as opening up the gills to see if they are bright red. I guess that would not be allowed back home, but here, we have no problems.

                        1. re: ziggylu
                          FoodFuser Apr 20, 2009 09:26 PM

                          Have you tried the fish counter at Lee Lee's asian market?

                        2. lucygoosey Apr 20, 2009 02:52 PM

                          Just ask the way you would ask any other question. When did the ___ come in? Can I smell it?

                          I, like the other posters, have never had a problem w/ this and even agree w/ SQHD that many fish mongers are proud to show off their product. As w/ any other job if you're doing it well, you're happy to have people look at and appreciate your work.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: lucygoosey
                            coll Apr 20, 2009 02:55 PM

                            I know a lot of people that own fish markets, I'm definitely going to ask them this question in the next few days, and report what they really think.

                            1. re: coll
                              coll Apr 24, 2009 10:26 AM

                              OK I asked a few general people yesterday. They replied, you can only tell if it's fresh by smelling it, but I'd never ask if it was a place I always go to. And the old timers said, when you went to the Fulton Fish Market (in Manhattan) you HAD to smell the fish, there were some shysters selling there. Haven't asked anyone that actually owns a market yet, but I'll let you know soon.

                          2. j
                            jaykayen Apr 20, 2009 02:09 PM

                            I've asked in all types of places: national supermarkets, Whole Foods, fishmongers... no one has ever had a problem.

                            1. s
                              Sherri Apr 20, 2009 02:05 PM

                              For as long as I can remember, I've bought fish with my nose; whole fish, pieces or filets, it does not matter. In a fish market or supermarket, I ask the clerk to please put the fish, on its paper, on the counter. I always give it a sniff, telling the clerk "I promise I won't touch the fish." Sometimes the clerk is a bit surprised but I've never been refused. Since I do not live on the coast, I cannot imagine buying fish anyother way.

                              1. p
                                PAO Apr 20, 2009 02:02 PM

                                If you've been burned, be sure not to go back. No reputable fish monger should be selling "off" smelling fish. Ever. You should patronize a fish monger that you can trust, which should take care of the"should I ask for a smell" problem. Go to the ChowHound for your area and ask for who the reputable fish mongers are. If you have a Japanese or Chinese population of any size, find out where they go.

                                1. ipsedixit Apr 20, 2009 02:00 PM

                                  Just ask.

                                  A reputable fish monger should be more than happy to show off his/her wares, including letting you smell.

                                  1. t
                                    TimCarroll Apr 20, 2009 12:13 PM

                                    I do it something like this. I'll take that one and that one. How do they smell? My husband / wife hates strong smelling fish. Great, thanks. - Done.

                                    1. coll Apr 20, 2009 11:18 AM

                                      I smell the air in the store, which should smell like the seashore (just because I enjoy that smell); but I trust my fish guy and would never insult him by asking to smell each fish. If you've gotten bad fish, return them for a refund and don't go back there.

                                      8 Replies
                                      1. re: coll
                                        SQHD Apr 20, 2009 02:15 PM

                                        I'm afraid this is the wrong answer, coll. Others seem to agree. YOU may know your fish monger but many, many, many other people may not. I have to say that it is NOT insulting to the folks behind the counter, and your advice is potentially scaring others from asking questions about the fish and whether or not you can do something as simple as smelling a fish.

                                        In fact, I would go as far as saying that the fish monger should be PROUD to let his customers ask questions up to and including smelling the product. If the fish is fresh, then he/she has nothing to hide.

                                        1. re: SQHD
                                          coll Apr 20, 2009 02:46 PM

                                          The thought of people sticking their nose and face on top of fish potentially for sale sounds very unsanitary to me, and would turn me off completely if I saw that. And if it stunk so bad that you could smell it 6 feet away, well I don't know what to say then. I'm lucky that I live in a great area for fresh fish, so the possibility of off fish is an unusual occurance anyway (maybe at a grocery store? Wouldn't know though, never tried it)

                                          1. re: coll
                                            MMRuth Apr 21, 2009 06:04 AM

                                            I've bought fish without smelling it, and got it to find that it reeked to high heaven. On the other hand, at Citarella, for example, I've never had a problem, and don't ask to smell it.

                                            1. re: coll
                                              scubadoo97 Apr 22, 2009 06:23 AM

                                              I once asked the guy behind the counter at Publix grocery store to smell a whole pompano. He was very hesitant and annoyed and warmed me that if I touched it he would have to throw it away. In my mind I thought of all the bare hands that touched that fish from the time it was pulled from the water to when it hit the ice in the store.

                                              I rarely buy fish at the grocery store other than farmed salmon since I have been burnt more times than not by smelly fish when I got home.

                                              1. re: scubadoo97
                                                SQHD Apr 22, 2009 06:35 AM

                                                As great as some Publix stores are, I almost never buy seafood there or at any other standard grocery store. The people may be nice an knowledgeable but the product is often sub-standard compared to stores as common as Whole Foods.

                                                1. re: SQHD
                                                  kchurchill5 Apr 22, 2009 06:57 AM

                                                  I agree on the quality, but can't afford much else. I just got tuna on sale 5.99 lb. It was fantastic. Also live, not fresh frozen for 5.99 lb. Every one was perfect. And a couple of crab cakes. I make better ones, but they were not bad and I got 2 filets of orange roughy too 4.99. Fresh, firm, smelled very fresh. I can't complain I would of hated to see my cost at the fish market or whole foods. Last time I got fish at my seafood market - Tuna was 15, Whole foods was more yet. I can't afford that. Orange Roughy was 16 at the fish market, mine was 4.99. Maybe fresh vs frozen, but for just me, I couldn't tell the difference. For guests I usually spend the extra but honestly, most times it is just as good. Maybe just lucky. I respect fresh vs frozen and if I could afford it that would be all I would buy, but I can't.

                                                  However, I still ask to smell the fish always!

                                                  1. re: SQHD
                                                    Sal Vanilla Apr 25, 2009 07:20 AM

                                                    You can, in fact, buy perfectly fresh and lovely fish at a regular grocery. I buy whole wild coho salmon from Albertsons occasionally and have never been disappointed. Th key is to know which store is reliable and which is not. If you do not want to smell it, look at it closely. If it does not have a fresh appearance, pass.

                                                    Another thing to consider, some places will clean older fish in a bleach solution to get rid of the smell. Ick.

                                                    Consider buying fish on Fridays. It tends to be fresher.

                                                    There is also the option of buying frozen fish. Balk all you want, but I like the halibut sold in individualized portions at Costco. The quality is quite good. Some fish does not do well frozen. Salmon comes to mind. Cod seems to do well though - As does tuna. I would not use it for sashimi, but it is fine cooked.

                                                    1. re: Sal Vanilla
                                                      kchurchill5 Apr 25, 2009 08:49 AM

                                                      I totally agree, my one Publix is good and one of my Sweetbays too. Albertsons I have never been dissappointed with either even though I know it is fresh frozen. But agree that some stores are better than others.

                                                      Wednesday is the fish day when it comes in fresh, so I usually go that day, good clue.

                                                      Frozen is ok, just bought some grouper for a dinner party because it was outrageous fresh and didn't look good ... I bought frozen and honestly it looks and smells great. NO ONE including me will ever know the difference. But as you said Sal, some freezes better than others.

                                                      Well put.

                                          Show Hidden Posts