General Discussion

"Fresh" Seafood: Local versus Non-Local


General Discussion 11

"Fresh" Seafood: Local versus Non-Local

Tom Armitage | Sep 25, 2009 10:47 AM

A recent post on the Pacific Northwest Board criticized a visitor who was going to a Seattle restaurant to eat a soft-shell crab roll, saying: “Point, the only soft-shell crab you could possibly get would have to be flown thousands of miles. What are you doing?” Eating fresh, local foods, including seafood, is indisputably desirable. But if you limit yourself exclusively to local foods, you will deprive yourself of some real culinary treasures. I’ll use the seafood used for sushi and sashimi as a case in point. Some of the best sushi I’ve ever had on the West Coast of the U.S. (I live in Seattle, and formerly lived in Los Angeles) has been air-freighted in fresh from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. If I had avoided these items because they have been “flown thousands of miles,” I would have never had the amazing experience of eating fresh ocean eel (anago), firefly squid (hotaruika), and baby eel (nore sore) at Kaito Sushi in San Diego (where, by the way, thanks to fellow Chowhound “cgfan,” I had some of the best sushi and sashimi I’ve ever had in my life), or eating fresh red clam (akagai) and whitebait (shira-uo) under the tutelage of master itamae Shibutani-san when he owned Shibucho in Los Angeles, or eating fresh golden-eye snapper (kinmedai) and halfbeak (sayori) at Kisaku Sushi in Seattle. To further complicate the subject, underlying the preference for local fish is the assumption that “fresher is better.” But this is not necessarily so. As any good sushi chef knows, the best sushi and sashimi is not necessarily made from the freshest fish. Fresh fish have very little flavor. Allowing fish to “age” breaks down the muscle proteins into components that produce tastiness. Different fish require different “resting” times, and the art of a good sushi chef is balancing the degradation of texture involved in this aging process against the improvement in taste, and serving the fish when the perfect balance of these elements is reached. Another complication is that local fish are not necessarily “fresher” than non-local fish, unless you happen to know a day-fisherman who brings in his catch hours after the fish are caught (and properly stored on board his fishing boat) and sells his catch the same day directly from his boat. When you buy local fish at a fish market, you don’t usually know the conditions under which the fish was caught (e.g., how long were dead fish left in a net?), how the fish were stored on board the fishing vessel, how they were handled during shipment and distribution, or, for that matter, how long they have been sitting on ice at a local fish market.

Soft shell crab, however, is a subject all to itself. On the West Coast of the U.S., almost all soft-shell crab is frozen. The reason for this is that fresh soft-shell crab, let’s say blue crab from Maryland (the best), is usually shipped live just above freezing (around 36 degrees F.). During transit at this temperature, the crab die, but are still considered “fresh” and have a shelf-life of 5-6 days. Because of the time consumed in the packing, shipping and handling process, by the time the fresh soft-shell crab arrive on the West Coast, they must be eaten in one or two days. The risk of not being able to sell all the crabs to customers in this very narrow window of time makes the purchase of fresh soft-shell crabs economically unfeasible for most restaurateurs. You can, from time to time, find a West Coast restaurant that takes the economic risk to purchase fresh soft-shell crabs. But, failing to find such a place, the question for West Coast residents is, “Would you rather eat frozen soft shell crab, or not eat soft shell crab at all unless you happen to be in Maryland between late May and September?” I personally love Maryland soft-shell blue crab, and since I don’t live in Maryland, have decided not to deprive myself of this delicacy by letting “the best”: become the enemy of “the good.”

For these reasons, I think the criticism of eating soft-shell crabs in Seattle, or eating non-local seafood in any city for that matter, is shortsighted.

I realize that the subject of seafood is enormously complex these days, and that this post superficially skims one small aspect of the many issues: local vs. non-local, fresh vs. frozen, farmed vs. wild, pollution, sustainability, etc. These are perilous times for seafood lovers.

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