Ten or twelve years ago, when we were vacationing in Hawaii, we ate at a restaurant in Lahaina, Maui. The food was excellent , the service even better, and we went there again. My wife ordered the same fish dish she had enjoyed the previous day. As she placed her order, she asked the waiter what kind of fish it was. This chap was not as experienced as the one we had had earlier. Giving her a stare of blank incomprehension, he replied bemusedly ” Fish is … fish. “
I remember this incident every time we go to the Asian supermarket to buy fish. Mainstream supermarkets have mostly stopped selling fresh whole fish. They usually have pre-packaged salmon and flounder fillets and shrimp, and bags of clams, mussels and , sometimes oysters. It is only the Asian stores that sell whole fish as well as fillets cut to order.I love to look at the display of the different types of fish and to try and guess what they are. At H-Mart, the Korean supermarket chain, all the fish on display are neatly labeled. No need for guessing. However, H-Mart is further away from our house and we usually wind up at a Chinese supermarket which is close by. The fish counter here is just as extensive and almost as well laid out as at H-Mart, but there are no labels. Asking the counter clerks about a particular fish is useless. All I get is a shake of the head and ” No English, No English.”
Some of the fish I know from the times I’ve gone fishing. Thus I am familiar with flounder and bluefish and trout. Salmon, which is usually sold as steaks or fillets, is easily identified too by its distinctive vivid orange flesh. Red snapper is a snap , pomfret, pompano and kingfish too. Almost everything else is a mystery. When I do go to H. Mart, I try to remember what the different species look like but the next trip to the Chinese fish market leaves me as mystified as ever. Isn’t this grouper? And that.. isn’t it sea bass ?
Making fish names even more difficult to remember is the fact that several are members of the same family but have different names. Kingfish, which we love to have dusted with coarsely ground spiced rice flour, is really king mackerel.( The 40 pound wahoo that my brother-in-law landed while on a fishing trip in the Virgin Islands is also a species of mackerel, but is not a type generally available in U.S. fish markets). Cod has as many as 200 species , including five main commercial types: Atlantic cod, haddock, pollock, hake and whiting. I’d often seen pollock on the list of ingredients on packages of fish sticks and breaded fish fillets without realizing that it was a type of cod. There’s also another type, ling or lingcod to give it its full name, that I have caught at the Jersey shore. As if all this is not enough , there is a freshwater cod which goes by the name of burbot.
Bass is another omnibus term for a different varieties of fish. There’s striped bass, largemouth bass and smallmouth bass but also weakfish, red drum and grouper. On the other hand, Chilean sea bass , highly prized for it’s taste and for the ease with which it can be grilled, is not a bass at all but a Patagonian toothfish.
Fish also go by different names in different countries. What we know as flounder, the English call plaice. Flounder, by the way, is an interesting fish. It is a flatfish that is plentiful near the Jersey shore and I’ve fished for it with varying success. One of my former neighbors also used to go fishing and he once knocked on my door and presented me with three large flat fish that I thought were flounder. He corrected me , telling me they were fluke. They differ from flounder in that they always swim right side up; their lower side is light colored, their upper side mottled brown and gray. Also , unlike flounder. they have both eyes on the same side. Who knew?
Perhaps the waiter in Lahaina had it right . Fish is … fish.