I’m not a huge fan of wet markets because wet markets in the Philippines are not exactly the most sanitary places. There are good ones, of course, like Farmer’s Market in Quezon City. And if we lived somewhere in the area, you’d probably find me there most mornings. Unfortunately, Farmer’s Market is more than an hour away and I have to live with supermarket-bought fish most of the time. There are days, however, when I get the craving for really fresh seafood and those are the times when we drive down to Taytay where the public market is much better than what we have here in Antipolo. We were there yesterday, and bought catfish (hito), mudfish (dalag) and tilapia. That’s butterflied mudfish in the photo.
In an ideal world, we’d all have access to live fish so we can enjoy them really fresh. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Most of the fish we find in the market had been transported from some faraway fish pond and it’s too much to expect them to survive the trip with all that ice in metal buckets. But just because a fish is no longer alive doesn’t necessarily mean it is no longer fresh. What exactly does fresh mean? In simplest terms, it means no bacterial growth has started to infect the fish.
Consumers like us don’t go to the market carrying tools, instruments and chemicals to test bacterial growth before buying fish. We learn to tell the freshness of fish by looking, smelling and touching.
Are cloudy eyes a bad sign?
One of the earliest things I was taught was never to buy fish with cloudy eyes because cloudiness was a sure sign of not being fresh. I followed that rule for years and years until, about two years ago, I had the pleasure of witnessing a bangus (milkfish) harvest in a fish pond in Roxas City. In the process of moving the live fish from the pond to the vat with huge blocks of ice where they are allowed to expire before they are weighed, the trashing fish hit one another and eye injury was one of the most common results. So, the condition of the fish eyes, to my mind, is not a good way to judge its freshness.
Smell, touch and check the gills
The best way to find out if a fish is fresh is to smell it, touch it and look inside the head to inspect the gills. To say that fresh fish shouldn’t smell fishy is ridiculous. If it doesn’t smell fishy, it isn’t fish. So the fishy smell is there even while it’s still trashing about. What it shouldn’t have is a rotting smell. I know it’s not that simple since, inside the market, the smell of rotting fish entrails can be overpowering but, trust me, there is a difference in the way fresh fish smells. It’s like the smell of the sea.
When you touch the flesh of fresh fish, it should be firm and your finger should leave no long-lasting indentation.
Check the gills. They should be bright red and not the shade of dried blood.
What about when buying fish fillets when the gills can no longer be inspected? With fillets, the flesh should be intact. When you lift the fillet, the flesh should not separate in parts. If there are yellowish spots or dry-looking red-black rims along the edges, move to another fish stall.