If anyone knows fish, it’s Josh Niland. The chef behind Saint Peter in Sydney and the adjacent fish and seafood butcher shop, Fish Butchery, is one of the world’s most notable voices in fish and his butcher-based approach has earned him legions of fans.
Niland is a crusader for gill-to-tail eating, and his sustainable practices at Saint Peter have allowed him to hit over 90% yield from the species like monkfish - a far cry from the traditional yield of 35-55%.
Of course, this kind of sustainable eating comes with deep knowledge of his work and Nilan is a man who has spent years learning how to process and pick great fish. With this in mind, we asked Niland to share some of his tips on how to buy fresh fish, what to look for in the fishmonger and, more importantly, what to smell for.
Here are five tips from the fish expert, Josh Niland.
Josh Niland’s expert tips on buying fish
1. Check the eyeballs - clarity is everything
Common knowledge requires you to check the clarity of the eyeballs when choosing fish. “The eyeballs should be slightly risen up off the head, eyeballs should be clear, they shouldn’t be brown or sunken in,” says Niland.
So what does it mean when the eyes show signs of fogginess, but the rest of the fish looks amazing? “Oftentimes it’s because it sat in the ice slurry for too long”.
2. Check for mucus coverage
According to Niland, you want to be looking for “an even coverage of mucus across the whole outside of the fish." Sound strange to be checking for mucus? The slimy coating acts as a layer that “protects the fish from pathogens in the water.” Naturally, the longer the fish is out of the water, the more it loses this coating, which is something you want to avoid.
3. Inspect for any imperfections on the skin
Take a look at the entire fish from head to tail and check for any punctures, hook holes or bites from other fish. Avoid fish with these imperfections in the skin that can immediately affect its freshness and keep.
It follows from this that wherever possible, you should always try to buy a whole fish rather than fillets. Ask your fish butcher to scale and gut the fish, without washing anything away. Niland's top tip is to treat it like a steak - you wouldn't wash a raw steak. Simply wipe off the excess slime, scales, any blood and guys with a paper towel and avoid contact with water.
4. Look for fish in rigor mortis
“Fish still in rigor mortis and noticeably stiff is desirable,” says Niland. Rigor mortis means the stiffening of the muscles of the fish shortly after death, therefore any fish that looks like it's stuck in a stiff position is a sure indicator of freshness.
Stay away from any fish that looks limp or feels soft, which is a sign of too much time passed since the fish has been killed.
5. Smell for the ocean, not fishiness
Niland says that when smelling a fish for freshness “you should avoid anything other than a mild ocean smell… rather than ammonia or fishiness.” What this means is that you are looking for nothing more than the salty smells associated with the ocean, such as algae, kelp, “literally smelling seaweed”.