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Oct 23, 2011 04:38 AM

How to Avoid Fake Fish in Boston [moved from Boston]

This morning's Boston Globe has a front-page headlining series of articles on the problem of mislabeled - - shell game, bait and switch [the punning possibilities are endless] - - fish on Boston restaurant menus and in stores.

I think that URL should get you past the pay per view barrier. Otherwise Google it.

Some time ago the NYTimes ran a similar expose of the practice in New York City.

Clearly the problem is endemic to the marketing of fish. So endemic in fact that the popular expressions for this kind of fraud are drawn from fishing, as demonstrated in the opening lines.

For many years I have followed a simple practice that reduces the risk. If more consumers demanded this method, not only would they less likely be defrauded, they would also get better tasting and cheaper fish.

The simple solution is to boycott filets. Only buy whole fish. If you want a filet, cut it yourself or have the waiter do it in front of you.

Once a fish is cut and sliced there is no simple way of knowing what you are getting. And the lower down the marketing chain of fish transmission the cutting occurs, the more likely that products will be switched. Obviously a lot of consumers get too squeamish too look a fish in the eyeball, or to see the entire carcass, bones and all, laid out on a plate, but that may be the only way to reduce the chances of getting ripped off, and possibly running a risk to your health as well as your wallet, e.g. escolar sold as white tuna.

Some imaginative restauranteurs could establish a niche market, if they specialized in whole grilled or roasted fish. And as for the fillets and steaks that necessarily have to be served because some varieties are simply too large for a single portion, dramatically cut the fillet from the whole fish in front of the diner as part of the restaurant experience.

Otherwise fillet customers are just like pigeons in a poker game.

Of all the major markets in the country Boston is one of the closest to regular supplies of fresh fish. The New England fishing industry has been hurt badly not only because of overfishing, but also because of fraudulent mislabelling that encourages cheap frozen imports. If local restauranteurs committed themselves to whole fish service, they would help reduce fraud and help an important New England industry.

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  1. Wow, very eye opening. The big one for me is that Ming Tsai is admitting that he's openly substituting one fish for another. If you're dropping $ 41 for a plate of premium fish, it should be the stated fish.

    I knew about the red snapper as it's the most substituted fish by far. It amazes me that restaurants do the switch as it would be an enormous liability. Being allergic to bottom-dwelling species (flounder, carp, etc.) is somewhat common and if you try to substitute red snapper for flounder, I see a decent lawsuit in the works.

    2 Replies
    1. re: atg106

      "alaskan butterfish", "sablefish", and "black cod" have long been market synonyms for the same fish - Tsai is not being disingenuous, it's just that market names aren't accurate - the other fish sometimes called butterfish bear no resemblance, and while I prefer "black cod", it isn't a cod. Pan-roasted Anoplopoma fimbria just doesn't sound as tasty I guess. Also, leading the story with the Tsai example, then burying his comments at the end seems a bit sensational.

      The article points out a range of problems, some rooted in the market naming, some in supply, some in indifference and miseducation, and some in outright deception - what it doesn't do is shed light on the problem in any meaningful way, as it seems no one decided to consult a biologist to check which case is which. It struck me as not dissimilar to the slow news weeks when the local crew pull out the "lets see how much bacteria is on your doorhandle" story...

      1. re: loper

        agree..I've always thought of Alaskan butterfish, Sable, and Black Cod as the same; not to be confused with Atlantic Cod..which is very similar to haddock...and probably why the scrod became a popular menu item..not specific. You don't "catch" a scrod.

        The fake grouper was a big issue in FL a few years ago.

    2. That's one (extreme) way to go about it. I also think that you can limit the problem on your own plate by limiting the types of species you order. Certain types of filets are easier to identify than others. As the article stated, for instance, mahi mahi and swordfish were correctly identified every time. Not much you could substitute for swordfish and fool anyone. Trout is another one that's easy (though many times that's available as a whole fish anyway). I never order sushi that claims "white tuna" because I learned long ago that it's code for escolar. Another huge one is "wild salmon" - many times it's totally obvious that it's farmed salmon but they serve it anyway (come on chef, they're different colors!).

      1. The problem is widespread in Florida and the Caribbean with warm water fish, too. 35% of grouper (mero in Mexico) sold in Florida and Yucatan restaurants, isn't grouper. Red snapper (huachinango in Mexico), which pairs with Veracruz sauce so nicely, often isn't. Hog fish is not a big seller in the states, but in Mexico it's boquinette, served whole and fried, hard to fake the 2 distinctive 2 front teeth. It's as tasty as pompano.

        The switcheroo game is played well by the restaurant owner, who plays dumb and claims to have been snookered by his supplier. Then the supplier says he was defrauded, too, it's an endless circle jerk.

        Beware battered fried fish filets, you have no way of knowing what's lurking beneath.

        1. if you shop at a reputable fish monger; there should be no such problem. I like courthouse and new deal.

          i read once that even Jovan Trboyevich had trouble with suppliers in Boston who tried to subsitute fish on him. He called them parvenus.

          2 Replies
          1. re: cambridgedoctpr

            Actually Courthouse and New Deal are my go-to fishmongers, with occasional visits to Whole Wallet when the others are not convenient.

            But to return to my solution boycott fillets eat only whole fish. The taste of a whole fish grilled on a real hardwood charcoal fire is one of the great gastronomic treats. It is a pity that more restaurants don't offer such fare.

            1. re: VivreManger

              Whole fish is terrific, without a doubt. But I think most people prefer filets, so I think that's what restaurants tend to offer. Diners might not want the reminder that their meal was once alive, or they don't want to deal with all the bones, or they think the skin is icky. And wheeling out a big tuna to carve out a chunk in front of the diners seems about as probable as wheeling out a beef carcass so you can see exactly what cut you are getting.

              On another note, if you check out the accompanying table of the Globe's findings, it is interesting that supermarkets did a pretty good job at label accuracy. Chain restaurants did pretty well, also.

          2. If it is hard to tell the difference in fillet form, why worry about it? Why are some fish considered to be 'premium' if it is so easy make substitutes?

            10 Replies
            1. re: paulj

              I have restarted the discussion of encouraging whole fish in Boston restaurants in the Boston Forum where it belongs.

              So you might want to look there:


              1. re: paulj

                So it's ok with you to mask a tilapia fillet with a lot of sauce and call it red snapper, or grouper, and charge accordingly? People who really know their fish will throw quite a hissy fit when they are defrauded, myself included. Educated consumers in large numbers are more able to be fish police than any incompetent government agency with budget cutbacks.

                1. re: Veggo

                  I'm not asking about any old substitution. I'm wondering about ones where a reasonably knowledgeable customer can't tell the difference. The Globe used DNA tests, not simple inspection.

                  I'm wondering whether, when people buy 'red snapper' (in store or restaurant), are they buying something that they can recognize, or are they buying a name? Could you distinguish between red snapper and some other snapper or rock fish?

                  Why should I care if my fish with a Cuban garlic seasoning is Pacific ocean perch as opposed to Atlantic red snapper?

                  The Globe article cites various reasons for being concerned about the substitutes, but admits at various points, that consumers and even experienced chefs often cannot tell the difference. I'm all for correct labeling, as long as the distinctions are meaningful (from the consumer's viewpoint).

                  1. re: paulj

                    The first time I entered La Calle Doce restaurant in Dallas, I had not even reached the hostess station and I said "they serve huachinango (red snapper) here."
                    Many wouldn't know or care, others do. To your question, your perch dish should cost about $4 less than a red snapper preparation.

                    1. re: Veggo

                      At a large Asian grocery (99Ranch) Canadian ocean perch was one of the cheaper fish, $3/lb whole clean w/o head.

                    2. re: paulj

                      I think one reason would be cost. If I was paying for a far more expensive type of fish and getting, say, tilapia, I'd be getting cheated, pure and simple. I didn't see any examples in the article of a MORE pricey substitute.

                      Or if you were trying to be ecologically responsible and ordered something on the Monterey Bay safe list and got something that was actually nearing the brink of extinction, that would be unconscionable on the part of the restaurant/wholesaler. You might not especially care, but it doesn't make it right.

                      1. re: paulj

                        It doesn't matter whether the consumers can tell the difference. No one should pay for something they're not getting.

                        1. re: Isolda

                          What do I get when I buy real red snapper? A difference that I can taste, or just bragging rights?

                            1. re: paulj

                              Ask Douglas Brackman what happens when you order Red Snapper and hand rolls.