As food buzzwords go, sushi grade fish seems fairly self-explanatory. It, of course, implies that the fish can be eaten raw, whether it’s folded into rice and nori and served in a maki-style roll, or finely sliced and enjoyed as sashimi. But what classifies the fish as safe to consume raw? American cuisine historically cooks fish all the way through—but thanks to culinary ingenuity from around the world, our eyes have been opened to the world of crudo, ceviche, sushi, and sashimi. To recreate these dishes with raw fish at home, you’ll need to fully understand what it means to buy sushi grade fish. Here, a breakdown of the sushi grade classification, and how to select and serve sushi grade fish.
What Is Sushi Grade Fish?
The first thing to understand is that there is no official “sushi grade” designation as approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). So, when a grocery store or independent business classifies fish as sushi grade, it is because they have deemed it safe to consume raw, a decision that is not regulated by the FDA.
Nonetheless, sushi grade fish implies that any parasitic fish—namely, salmon, tuna, or even scallops—was frozen immediately after being caught to kill parasites and preserve the fish’s freshness. Sushi grade also implies that it’s the highest-quality fish being sold at the grocery store or fish market. Before distributing fish, wholesalers will often grade it—the highest grade, grade 1, is then sold as sushi-quality fish.
Chef Manabu Asanuma, sous chef at Michelin-starred o.d.o by ODO, says in Japan there is another step that goes into qualifying sushi grade fish. One of the ways Japanese fishermen keep fish and seafood as fresh as possible is by preparing it “Ikejime” to ensure freshness. The Ikejime technique is a humane way for fishermen to kill the fish on the boat—and then freeze immediately—ensuring its quality for sushi and sashimi. This technique is now widely practiced around the world, and many upscale sushi restaurants only source sushi-grade fish prepared in the Ikejime style.
Selecting Sushi Grade Fish
While these sushi-grade parameters are followed strictly by fish purveyors, there is nothing more important than being a discerning and educated fish buyer. First, choose your fishmonger wisely. You’re looking for a store that sells fish quickly and gets fresh fish regularly. Quick turnaround is crucial when buying sushi-grade fish—you don’t want to buy the fish your monger has been trying to sell for three days, you want to buy the fish that came in that morning. It’s also important that the fish is sold to you cold—it should be displayed on a bed of fresh ice or taken directly from a fridge or freezer.
You also want to get comfortable asking questions about the fish you’re buying. Specifically, you may want to ask where the fish came from, how it has been stored and handled, and how long the fish has been in the store. Finally, pay close attention to the look, feel, and smell of the fish you’re considering.
You want to see vibrant color if the fish is already sliced open, and right away the smell should tell you if the fish in question came straight from the ocean and was immediately flash frozen, or whether it’s been sitting out at room temperature. As color goes, the FDA says, “Fish fillets should display no discoloration, darkening, or drying around the edges.” More specifically, fresh tuna should have deep red flesh, and “shrimp, scallop, and lobster flesh should be clear with a pearl-like color and little or no odor.”
If you’re buying a whole fish, Chef Asanuma says, “Ensure that the fisheye is clear (not milky), and the skin has a shiny luster to it.” And in terms of smell, the FDA says, “Fish should smell fresh and mild, not fishy, sour, or ammonia-like.”
How to Prepare Sushi Grade Fish at Home
There are four main ways to serve sushi-grade fish at home, all inspired by global cuisine:
Ceviche is a South American dish in which small cubes of raw fish are marinated in lemon or lime juice. The juice from the citrus actually cures the cubes of fish, and the dish is then garnished with onion, cilantro, or various other fresh herbs and spices. Ceviche, Peru’s national dish, is often served alongside freshly fried tortilla chips.
Crudo is an Italian-style preparation of raw fish, served with high-quality extra-virgin olive oil and other garnishes. The olive oil does not cure the fish in the way citrus juices might, but the acidity in the olive oil lightly coats the fish, highlighting its natural flavors. Crudo is a very paired-down way to serve sushi-grade fish and is ever-reminiscent of life on the Italian Riviera.
Sushi or Maki
A classic Japanese preparation of raw fish, sushi is meticulously sliced raw fish served over tightly packed rice—the rice should have a small amount of vinegar mixed in. Alternatively, maki is raw fish rolled inside the vinegar rice, with a layer of dried seaweed—or nori—around the outside. To serve the sushi roll maki-style, simply slice into round, bite-size pieces.
Also Japanese, sashimi is delicately sliced fish served without rice, citrus (like lime juice), or fat (like olive oil). It is the most bare-bones preparation, and exceptional sashimi encourages diners to revel in the melt-in-your-mouth texture of the highest-quality raw fish. Sashimi is often served with soy, ponzu, lemon, ginger, or wasabi on the side.