Wed 13 Dec

A Beginner's Guide to Christmas Seafood Shopping

Entering Sydney Fish Market for the first time can be an utterly overwhelming experience. If your visit is taking place during our 36-Hour Seafood Marathon on Christmas Eve... You can basically kiss your Zen goodbye.  

There's the 100+ different seafood species on display, the tossing and tipping of prawns, the families lugging esky bags, the mates tucking into fish and chips at 5am, Santa ringing his bell... Not to mention the hustle and bustle of oyster shucking, fish filleting, ice packing, coffee making, bread baking, meat slicing, and prawn peeling... Let's just say it can be a lot to take in. 

First timers will often get overwhelmed; sticking to the basics, and getting in and out with a sigh of relief and a kilo of prawns under the arm. But it's obvious to any visitor that there is so much more to discover at the Market, especially at Christmas time.  

If you need a hand making your Christmas visit go smoothly, this is the guide for you. 

P.S. Scroll all the way to the end for a glossary of key terms you might need while seafood shopping! 


Step 1: Make a Plan 

Making a plan before your visit to SFM is the key to ensuring you aren't immediately overwhelmed by choice. The plan can be as vague or as meticulous as you like, depending on what type of home cook you consider yourself.  

If you prefer things loose and creative, think about a cooking method you'd like to use; are you planning on firing up the BBQ, throwing something in the oven, or sticking to the frying pan? That is often enough to give yourself some direction when exploring our retailers. 

If you're more detail-oriented, you might use this complete guide to planning your Christmas spread to figure out your game plan. 

It’s also helpful to make note of how many people you're feeding. Your fishmonger will be able to help you with portion sizes from there, but if in doubt, use this infographic to figure out how much to buy. 

The other important thing to consider is when to come to the Market. We're open for 36 hours straight at Christmas, starting from 5am on the 23rd until 5pm on Christmas Eve, and the best times to come to avoid crowds are usually: 

  • Early morning on either day (we're talking 5am sharp). 

  • Or on the evening of the 23rd (as late as you can handle). 

Expert tip: If you're driving here, head straight for our overflow parking at Sydney Secondary College Blackwattle Bay. This way, you'll avoid the traffic around our car park entrance, and will be guaranteed a spot. The College is only a leisurely 7-minute stroll from the Market, and the time it saves you waiting in traffic is so worth it. 


Step 2: Use Your Senses 

Like any fresh produce, when choosing seafood, it's important to get up close and personal. While this can be a challenge in the crush of the Christmas crowds, it's a must.  

As you look at the fish on offer, you should be keeping your eyes peeled for shiny, lustrous-looking skin or scales, firm, intact flesh (with no marks or tears), and bright, pink-red gills. 

If you want to use touch to explore our retailers, the staff will happily supply you with a pair of gloves. Fish flesh should be firm and spring back when touched. Crustaceans like Crabs should feel heavy for their size, with no sound of sloshing water inside when gently shaken. Bivalves (like Mussels, Pipis, or Vongole) should have intact shells, that are closed or close when tapped. 

Your most important tool when seafood shopping, however, is your nose! All seafood should have a pleasant, fresh sea smell; product that smells especially 'fishy’ is not what you're going for. Think of seafood the same way you would a bottle of milk...your nose will tell you immediately if something is not good to eat. 


Step 3: Make Use of Your Fishmonger 

The staff at SFM retailers are a treasure trove of knowledge on what is fresh and in-season, but it can be hard to get their ear when they're flat out at Christmas time.  

In this busy period, instead make use of their skills by asking them to prepare your seafood for you. They can clean squid, pin-bone fillets, gill and gut whole fish, peel prawns, slice sashimi, and halve lobster or bugs.  

If you do manage to get a few extra words in, ask them to recommend a species; they’ll even tell you how to cook it if you're friendly enough! 


Step 4: Know Your Sections 

Most seafood retailers at Sydney Fish Market have a variety of sections or stations in their store. These generally include a whole fish section, a fillet bar, a prawn section, an oyster bar, a sashimi bar, a hot food section, live tanks, and a frozen section.  

Knowing where you're going is key at Christmas, because you often won't be able to see the counter for the crowds! 

Most often, one staff member will be able to help you gather product from all of these sections in one transaction, but sometimes you may have to purchase from the sashimi or oyster bar separately, as these sections have specialised staff. 

When purchasing from the sashimi bar, you will choose your fish, which will be weighed for you, and then sliced using a specialised knife. An added bonus here is that you can choose the thickness of your sashimi slices; if you prefer thicker or thinner, let the staff member know and they will slice it to your liking. They can also slice it into cubes for you if you're making a ceviche... Yum! 

Choosing oysters is another time when speaking to the staff is extremely beneficial. Many of the oyster shuckers at Sydney Fish Market have been in their roles for decades, shucking more than 200 dozen oysters every day, and they are therefore experts on what makes the perfect morsel. Ask them which variety they recommend at Christmas, and you are guaranteed to get a delicious tray. 


Step 5: Transport and Store Correctly 

One of the cardinal rules of seafood purchasing is that for every hour your seafood is not on ice, one day is taken off the shelf-life. We are religious about this behind the scenes at Sydney Fish Market, and you should be too! 

Once you've chosen your seafood, the best way to ensure that it stays as fresh as possible for the trip home is to pack it into an esky or chiller bag (these are available for purchase at most SFM retailers), and ask your fishmonger to pack some ice with your purchase. There is no shortage of ice here, and the staff will be happy to give you as much as you like! 

Most seafood will keep in the coldest part of your fridge for up to 3 days, when stored correctly. We recommend placing most species on a plate or in a lidded container, and covering them with a damp cloth, followed by plastic wrap or a lid. There is also nothing wrong with freezing seafood if you need to! Just make sure it is stored in an airtight freezer bag, with as little air as possible. 


And that's it! You've completed your first trip to Sydney Fish Market's 36-Hour Seafood Marathon like an expert. Now, it's time to get cooking. Check out our other articles for oodles of recipe inspiration. 



Crustacean: In seafood, crustacean refers to a class of arthropods with an exoskeleton and two-parted limbs. Includes Lobsters, Crabs, Crayfish, and Prawns. 

Bivalve: Bivalves are any shellfish with a double hinged shell, many of which are commonly referred to as clams; ‘clam’ once meant ‘shut’ and these creatures can shut their shells tightly to protect themselves from predators. Many of our most popular shellfish, such as Oysters, Scallops and Mussels, are bivalves.  

Mollusc: Scientific term for 'shellfish'. Refers to any of a large phylum (Mollusca) of invertebrate animals (such as Snails, Clams, or Squid) with a soft unsegmented body usually enclosed in a calcareous shell. 

Cephalopod: A class of marine molluscs including Squid, Cuttlefish, and Octopus, which have a group of muscular (usually sucker-bearing) arms around the front of the head, highly developed eyes, and usually a sac containing ink which is ejected for defense or concealment. 

Whole Fish: A fish which has not been filleted, and is thus sold completely intact, exactly how it was caught. In most seafood retailers, whole fish will be sold pre-cleaned, however you may need to ask to have them gilled, gutted, and scaled. 

Gilled: A fish with the gills removed. Gills are removed because they can impart a bitter flavour to fish. 

Gutted: A fish with the guts (viscera) removed. Ready to cook whole after a simple wipe down of the inner cavity. 

Scaled: A fish with its scales removed. This is generally done by your fishmonger, using a special tool. 

Cleaned: A fish that has been scaled, gilled, and gutted. 

Fillet: A fillet is the whole side of a fish cut away from the central back bone and rib cage. You may need several fillets from a very small fish, such as Sand Whiting, to serve 1 person, while those from a larger fish, such as an 800g Snapper, may be an ideal portion size for 1 person. 

Cutlet: Cutlets are a section sliced horizontally through the whole fish, leaving the bones in; Salmon and Blue-eye Trevalla are often seen as cutlets. When used in relation to Prawns, this term refers to a peeled Prawn with the tail left attached. 

Steak: Fillets from very large fish, such as Swordfish or Tuna, are usually sliced vertically into boneless 'steaks' that are a suitable portion size for 1 person.  

Trunk: A whole fish sold with the head removed. Ocean Jacket are a species commonly sold as 'trunks'.  

Butterflied: Butterflying is another way of filleting a whole fish. Rather than taking the fillets away from the backbone, the bone is taken out. The result is two fillets that stay connected, usually with the head and tail left on, to hold the finfish together during cooking. Butterflied fish are great for stuffing. 

Skin On/Skin Off: Your fishmonger will generally have fillet options available with both the skin on and skin off. If you are looking to pan-fry or BBQ your fish, you would usually purchase it with skin on, so that you can crisp up the skin in the pan. You can always ask for skin to be removed if you perfer not to eat it. 

Pin boned: Fish with the bones meticulously removed using specialised tweezers. Not all fish available at your chosen retailer will be pin boned; if you are nervous about bones, it is worthwhile to ask your fishmonger about them. Sometimes pin boning will come at an additional cost. 

Sashimi-grade: Very fresh seafood, suitable for eating raw is labelled ‘sashimi-grade’. It’s caught and handled in such a way that peak freshness and quality are maintained. Sashimi-grade Tuna, and other large wild-caught fish, are line-caught, landed onto a mattress (to minimise bruising) and killed instantly by brain-spiking (ike jime). This prevents the fish from struggling and releasing stress hormones and helps keep the body temperature low. The fish is then bled immediately, removing heat and waste products, and put into an ice slurry to drop the body temperature as close to 0ºC as quickly as possible. If you are planning on eating your chosen seafood raw or rare, make sure to check with your fishmonger whether it is sashimi-grade. 

Wild-Caught: Refers to seafood caught in natural marine environments, such as oceans, lakes, and rivers. 

Farmed: Refers to a seafood species reared and harvested in controlled water environments. Some popular aquaculture species are: Barramundi (Queensland, NT and WA), Eel (mainly Victoria and Queensland), freshwater Crayfish (Yabby, Redclaw and Marron), Murray Cod (Victoria and NSW), Oysters (Sydney rock, Pacific and Native), Prawns (especially banana and black tiger), Silver Perch (mainly NSW and Queensland), Trout (mainly Rainbow Trout grown in freshwater, or in sea cages and marketed as Ocean Trout), and Yellowtail kingfish and Mulloway (mostly from Port Lincoln, SA). Also available in Australia is Chinook Salmon (farmed in New Zealand and marketed as King Salmon). 

Responsibly sourced: A term used in the seafood industry to mean 'sustainable'. While overfishing has been a serious problem globally and continues to be an issue in some regions, since the turn of this century Australian fisheries have been internationally recognised as among the best-managed in the world. Both State and Commonwealth legislation requires that our fisheries be sustainable, and that the environmental impacts of fishing activities be regularly assessed. Stocks of even previously overfished species continue to increase under careful supervision; recovery plans for such species are mandatory and have been proven to work. The best way to be sure you’re buying sustainable or 'responsibly-sourced' seafood is to buy Australian.