How I source seafood (when I'm not sourcing seafood).
Selecting fish at the Sapporo Wholesale Markets, Hokkaido Japan
Sourcing seafood. It's something I do for a living. And something I do for myself. With more than 10 years of experience running seafood businesses I wanted to share some of my observations and experiences. I hope this blog will inspire you to try some alternative options for sourcing seafood, and learn some new habits, skills and recipes. Ultimately, I believe that the more options you have, and more connected you are to local food communities and networks, the more enriching the role food/seafood will play in you and your family's life.
Many supermarkets offer a reasonable selection of fresh seafood. But they are often sold in small quantities, pushing the price up, and packaged in plastic contributing to the plastic waste problem. Supermarkets tend to emphasise high demand (and often overfished) seafood such as salmon, tuna and prawns. To stock these items year round, inevitably they rely on imported, frozen products which are often industrially fished or cultured to supply global demand. These are good reasons to AVOID buying seafood from supermarkets. I much prefer fishmongers, especially those located in fish markets.
When you buy at seafood markets, you get a chance to buy like a pro. You usually buy the fish unfileted, and by the kilo, which translates into cheaper prices. You also get a chance to buy high grade and unusual or expensive fish which never show up in supermarkets. Like this "Menuki" fish (below left), sourced at the Numazu Wholesale markets, or Kinki fish and Mutsu (below right) sourced at the Sapporo Wholesale markets. You simply cannot find these fish at supermarkets or Costco!
Fishmongers are usually family businesses. Their clientele include seafood restaurants and sushi bars. So they sink or swim based on the quality of their seafood. Big seafood markets, i.e. wholesale markets, do significant volume which is always a good indicator of freshness. They usually have a retail area as well, for example, the Sydney Fish Markets or the Sapporo Wholesale Markets.
By asking a few simple questions each time, you can soon develop trust with your supplier, and, importantly, they will develop trust in you. When I first started buying at the Sapporo Wholesale Markets, the wholesale fishmongers (as opposed to the retail fishmongers) were reluctant to do business with me because I stood out in their eyes as a "tourist buyer." But once I got to know them, and develop trust, I became a part of the "family." Here are some of the friendly faces that greet me in the mornings when I arrive to purchase for the night ahead at in Niseko.
Recently a buzz word for collecting wild vegetables, foraging for seafood is less common because it involves actually getting under water! I live near a coastline, and spend a fair bit of the time under water anyway so its an easy diversion for me. Over a few years I have gradually expanded my foraging activities. I started with the "low hanging fruit" like rock crabs and sea snails which can be found in abundance around rocky shorelines. Recently I have learnt to pry goosebarnacles from ocean walls and limpits from rocks. All of these go straight into our seafood "dashi" and some onto seafood paellas to add local character. Edible seaweeds including "hijiki" and sea cucumbers, which can be eaten raw, pickled or fried, are also available. Foraging should be conducted without intruding significantly on the environment or local fishing regulations.
Recently my eyes have opened to the possibilities and rewards of bartering for seafood. I have initiated and am cultivating several barter arrangements. The first is with a local fisherman called "Nakachan". He is the unofficial boss of the local fishermen who fish just outside our door every day. In addition to providing us with invaluable information on anything related to fishing and seafood, he often shows up with some freshly caught, or live fish. In return I share our staff fruit smoothies with him, surplus vegetables or herbs or our focaccia bread. Its an unofficial and easy give and take relationship.
"Nakachan" -- chef, fishermen, friend
Another developing relation is with the many Filipino fishermen who fish right outside our summer restaurant Ezo Seafoods Summer. They tend to fish in groups of 5-10 and when the fish is biting pull in a reasonable surplus. In return I offer them prime car parking space and whatever leftovers we have from lunch service. This might be some of my daily baked foccacia bread or some surplus vegetables. There is some language barrier, but the bartering tends to be a universal language.
Bartering is alive and well in food producer communities, such as fishermen or farmers. If you want to get closer to these communities, I recommend you initiate bartering by showing up with whatever you have a surplus of - vegetables, flowers, herbs, foraged seafood, or home baked bread etc. Expect nothing in return. If it turns into something it will happen spontaneously.
My bottom line recommendation is -- the more options you have at your disposal, the better. And as you expand your options, you will inevitably learn new skills, such as filleting and preserving different types of seafood. You will become more attuned to the seasonality of seafood. And best of all, you will get closer to the communities around which sourcing (and sharing) is a way of life, enriching the role food plays in your life.