When it comes to fish, the fresher the better and the Japanese it, seems, will go to great lengths to ensure that their fish is really fresh.(According to a story I read on the Web) the waters near Japan have long since been fished out and fishing boats have had to venture farther and farther from shore. In order to preserve the catch till the boats got back, it used to be refrigerated immediately. Customers, however, complained that the fish was not as tasty. Then the fishermen took to transporting live fish back to shore in large tanks. But the fish were tightly packed in the tanks, unable to swim about, and customers still complained about the lack of taste. So, the fishermen hit upon an ingenious solution. They made the holding tanks larger and into each tank they introduced a small shark. The shark ate a few fish on the journey back but the rest of the fish were constantly darting about to escape the shark and were lively and consequently fresh tasting !
I just can’t believe this story. It seems to me to be one of those ‘urban legends’, things that could happen but probably didn’t, the product of someone’s fertile imagination. Be that as it may, it is true that the Japanese and Chinese like their fish fresh. In large Chinese supermarkets and restaurants here in the U.S, a common feature is a large fish tank ( or tanks) from which customers can select the fish they want. At the HK Supermarket the other day, a Chinese lady told me that she always selects live fish from the tanks; they taste incomparably better. It’s silly of me but I can’t overcome my squeamishness. I always choose my fish from those laid out on the beds of ice nearby.
Only once have I been able to do otherwise. It was on a trip to China , when we were on our way to see the Great Wall outside of Beijing…..
It was a fairly long drive from our hotel to the Great Wall and looking out through the windows of our van, I saw something strange. There were a number of open air restaurants lining our route and beside each were people fishing in large tanks. Our guide told us that restaurant patrons could hook their own fish and have it cooked to their taste. Hmm ! When in China, do as Chinese do.
On our way back from seeing the The Great Wall ( fabulous , BTW), we had the van driver stop at one of these establishments. We were led to the two tanks beside the restaurant , given fishing poles and bait and allowed to try our luck. One tank contained fish about a foot long; the other had fish that were larger,about 18 inches long, and which cost twice as much per pound.We opted for the smaller variety but soon found that the fish would not bite; they knew very well what was in store for them. The restauranteur then produced a net and I tried to catch the fish but without success. It was difficult to move the net through the water and the fish darted about like quicksilver. My brother-in-law was more successful and quickly netted two of them, including a gold colored one that he had his eye on. We repaired to the outdoor seating area and had not yet finished our first beers when our lunch arrived. The fish had been filleted, sprinkled with a”secret blend of spices” and expertly grilled. They were piping hot, firm fleshed but perfectly cooked and delicious. Not at all fishy.Probably, the best fish I’ve ever eaten. Fresh is better, much better.
There is one thing I don’t understand. In the fish stands in New York’s Chinatown , the fish are displayed in beds of ice on crates on the sidewalk. There is a staggering amont of fish and I can’t imagine that more than a small fraction of it is sold every day. Particularly in summer, when it gets pretty hot, the fish can’t last very long. The Chinese, who form the bulk of the customers, are very particular about freshness and I don’t think restaurants would settle for less than the best. What happens to the rest of the fish, those that don’t get sold soon? I’ll never know.