Monday, October 24, 2011

What fish is this?

That's a tough question.  Since there are no regulations when it comes to fish names, fish markets and restaurants can call it pretty much whatever they please.  There is a good article in the Boston Globe about it (I hope Globe won't ask you to register after today).  In the article Beth Daley and Jenn Abelson raise the issues of industry fraud, health, and the environment.

I would like to raise another issue -- one of consumer close mindedness.  After watching famous food TV personalities consume bull testicles and pig eye balls, we want to think of ourselves as open minded gourmands.  After all, we tell our children they should try everything at least once, and we are sure we set a wonderful example for them.  We are no longer a nation of meat and potatoes, right?  I wish I could say yes, but I can't.

Over the last 8 years of teaching cooking classes, I had a chance to ask more than 2 thousand people questions about what ingredients they cook with and what dishes they order in restaurants.  It wasn't a formal survey, but more anecdotal evidence that comes from statements like "I never thought I would have liked bluefish.  I've never tasted it before.  Isn't it supposed to be strong and fishy."  Since restaurant chef's and fishmongers have to deal with this kind of attitude, is it any wonder Ming Tsai calls sable "butterfish" on his menu.  I heard that some Mom got her children to eat salmon by telling them it was orange chicken.  It worked.  That's what many restaurants and fish mongers are trying to do.  Get us to eat things we normally wouldn't.

I was at a fish counter at Captain Marden's in Wellesley, MA, when I heard a woman singing praises to Black Cod.  "That cod you sold me last week, Tom -- was the best cod I've ever had.  So tender, so sweet and buttery.  Just melted in the mouth."  That cod was actually not cod at all, but sable.  Would this woman buy it under its real name?

Seafood industry surely needs more regulation, and fish names should be standardized.  The current situation is as ridiculous as if we were selling pork rib chops as veal rib chops, or hanger steak as tenderloin.  But let's not forget to take a good look at ourselves as cooks and diners.  Imagine that consumers were unwilling to buy anything that is not tenderloin.  Would the meat industry be as willing to tell them what the cut really is?

Here are some common fish mislabeling and confusing names.  They are not illegal, but that doesn't make them any more understandable.

Sable -- often goes under the names of Black Cod and Butterfish
Striped bass -- often called Striper in New England and Rockfish in Maryland and mid-Atlantic states
Escolar -- often sold as white tuna.  It's not a tuna at all.  While delicious, it causes many people terrible gastrointestinal distress.  I love its taste and never experienced any negative side effects myself, but I strongly believe they should ban it (many countries do).
Grey sole -- a type of flounder
Lemon sole -- another type of flounder
"Dover" sole -- if "Dover" is in quotes and it comes from Pacific water, it's really a flounder.  True Dover Sole is from Europe
Ahi tuna -- another name for yellowfin tuna
Scrod -- a New England term that means some white fish (could be cod, haddock, or hake)
Chilean Sea Bass -- not a bass at all, but Patagonian Toothfish


bkida said...

Great article. I wonder if some of these aliases are also being used as a red herring to throw off any regulators attempting to identify illegal fish catches protected species. The industry has to deal with declining fish numbers so this may be an indication of a much more ominous sign.

Helen said...

that does happen.

Jen Henley said...

That Patagonian Toothfish is also a kind of a grouper. (For you info junkies;-)

Anonymous said...

Weird that the article said it wasn't legal to call sablefish, butterfish in MA.

It's easy to find as an alias for it along with "black cod", so it's not like it's a sleazy substitution for other fish (like tilapia for snapper..LOL :-)

Kari said...

@Jen Henley - Patagonian Toothfish a kind of a grouper? True seabass are in the same family as grouper but Chilean Seabass/Patagonian Toothfish are not.

Thanks for some very sane comments, Helen. Of course there is fraud going on all around us but as a fishmonger, I can tell you that much of this renaming is for marketing purposes.

Also, escolar is amazingly delicious. I've never heard of anyone getting sick from a reasonable portion of 4-6 ounces cooked or a couple pieces of sashimi.