Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >
Apr 20, 2009 11:10 AM

Fish market etiquette


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. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. 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

      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

        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

          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

            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

              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

                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

                  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

                    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.

        2. 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. Just ask.

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

            1. 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. 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.