How to buy fresh fish

How to buy fresh fish

Lately I’ve got questioned a lot about how to buy fresh fish and I want to give a little help as, even if it looks like a maze in the dark, I can assure you it is not that hard. We will go step by step, unmasking the legends and discovering few things to be aware of to get the best product there is!

First of all, and I would say rather important, it is never to trust blindly the fishmonger: they are working in the field and some of them are honest about what they sell, however, as it happens with almost everything, sometimes they just want to give away the things that have been there for long time. It doesn’t mean that they’ll give you something which is not edible anymore, but it could not be the freshest one…

If are lucky enough to have a market with different stalls make sure you pass by each one of them before deciding where you are going to buy something.

Always be aware of the origin of the species you are buying: Pangasius (also known as Panga fish) is a fresh water fish farmed in the Mekong delta, one of the most polluted rivers in the world and Tilapia comes from Africa where farming and preserving do not have the same safety and hygienic standards than in other countries.

Following the above always make sure the fish and seafood you are buying comes as close as possible from where you live and in case you live far away from the coast try to get species that are caught or farmed in the coastal areas of your country.

And now after these few helpful tips we are going to see how to find out the freshest products, dividing them in different categories as it’s not the same buying fish, mollusc or cephalopods (squid, cuttlefish etc.)…


-Look at the gills of the fish, they need to be bright red/pink; if they are too dark or discoloured it means the fish has been there for a long time and the oxidation of the blood will change the normal colour.


-The eyes should be convex, clear and bright; as soon as a fish is left for a couple of days the eyes will start to become cloudy and after a few hours they’ll start to change their shape becoming concave.

Eye of a fresh fish.

-The meat needs to be firm, if you touch it with one finger pressing down the meat should come back to the same position, if the mark of the finger remains do not buy it.

-Fish has not usually a great aroma, it’s not Chanel Nº5, however the smell should be not too strong; as soon as the fish starts to decompose it will smell of ammonia.

-As with fruits and vegetables, fishes, despite what people think, do have a season when they are almost perfect: for instance, blue fish like tuna, mackerel, anchovies or sardines are better during the summer period and more abundant, that also means a cheaper price.

-Fish should be ALWAYS labelled properly, so you should be able to know: which species it is, where it was caught, which kind of technique was used to get it and if it is fresh or frozen. I’ve only put the info you should find almost everywhere in the world, however it might change depending on the actual legislation of each country. If you are not sure about something just ask, you have the right to know it!

A product properly labelled.

-If we dig deeper it might come to our mind a question: is frozen fish as good as the fresh one? I have to say that the nutritional values of both are really close, but it should be mandatory to have a look to the place of provenance, places like the Indian Ocean are extremely polluted and the fishes live in there, do your maths…

-Farmed or wild?! It would be much better to say wild, but we have also to take into account the difference in price: a farmed sea bream (“dorada”) of approx. one pound could be around 4€ while the wild one could go for as much as 40€ per kilo, that means 18,2€ per pound… Again, be aware of which season you are in as you might get wild ones for a reasonable price, if not try to buy the wild ones at least for special occasions, I can vouch that you’ll see and TASTE the difference.

-There are, however, little tricks that can lead you astray and most of the big sellers like supermarkets (and unfortunately not just those) know them all… One of them is spraying water on the surface on the fish, but the one I will never understand because it DOES NOT MAKE ANY SENSE, not for the consumer at least, is selling the fish beheaded, a common practice in the States…

As a last advice do not get scared when buying fish, good fishmongers know their stuff, they know how to treat, process and cut the fishes they sell depending on how you want to cook them, do not hesitate to ask! Try to buy, cook and enjoy as much fish as possible, it is more sustainable than red meat and, if you know something as basic as frying an egg you should also be able to do a pretty good fish of any kind…

So, get your shit together and start buying fish!