The Complete Beginners Guide to Seafood Shopping

Mon 21 Mar
The Complete Beginners Guide to Seafood Shopping

Entering Sydney Fish Market for the first time can be an utterly overwhelming experience. The incredible variety of seafood on display (over 100 species on any given day), the huge range of retailers (from a bunch of wet fish and cooked seafood restaurants, to a butcher, a baker, an artisanal deli, a greengrocer, and a bottle shop), and the hustle and bustle of oyster shucking and fish filleting and ice packing... It can be a lot to take in. 

First timers will often stick to the market's cooked offerings, which is a great way to try some of Australia's freshest seafood when you aren't quite sure how to go about purchasing it fresh. People slightly more experienced might pick up some freshly shucked oysters, some sliced sashimi, or maybe a fillet of a familiar fish, like Atlantic Salmon, Snapper, or Barramundi. 

But it's obvious to any visitor that there is so much more to discover at the Market. If you're ready to dive in and get the most out of your Sydney Fish Market visit, then 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. You can also check out this newsletter from Sydney Seafood School, for a guide on which seafood species suit which cooking methods. 

If you're more of a planner, you might peruse Sydney Seafood School's collection of delicious recipes before your visit, and pick one or two to try out. 

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. 


 

Step 2: Talk to the Fishmonger 

Expert chefs like David Coumont (of Moxhe in Bronte) come to Sydney Fish Market in the early morning and head straight to see their favourite fishmonger. In David's case, it's Tony of Claudio's Seafood. David's choice of seafood on any given day is based almost solely on what Tony tells him is fresh and good quality, and what he sees in the displays himself. He then figures out from there how he is going to showcase these deliciously fresh species on his restaurant tables. 

For complete beginners, this exact approach is not necessarily what we would advise; as mentioned above, having a plan of what you hope to cook before you arrive at Sydney Fish Market is very useful when you're just starting out. However, beginners can take one very important leaf from David's book – talking to and trusting the fishmonger! 

The staff at SFM retailers are a treasure trove of knowledge on what is fresh and in-season. They will use their expert skills to prepare your seafood for you, including cleaning squid, pin-boning fillets, gilling and gutting whole fish, peeling prawns, slicing sashimi, and halving lobster or bugs. You can also ask them to recommend a species you haven’t tried before, helping you to get out of your comfort zone; they’ll even tell you how to cook it if you're not sure! 


 

Step 3: Use Your Senses 

Like any fresh produce, when choosing seafood, it's important to get up close and personal, and use your senses. 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, and 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 consume. 


 

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. 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 are making a ceviche. 

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 role for decades, shucking more than 200 dozen oysters every day, and they are therefore experts on what makes a fresh and tasty oyster. Ask them which variety they recommend on the day you are visiting, 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 every hour your seafood is not on ice, one day is taken off the shelf-life.  

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 at Sydney Fish Market, 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 like an expert. Now, it's time to get cooking.  

If you're a beginner in the seafood cooking arena too, a great way to get your bearings is to book into a Sydney Seafood School class. In these hands-on experiences, the School's expert staff will walk you through the basics of seafood prep and cooking, and help you add some delicious recipes to your repertoire. Book a class here

 

Glossary 

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 sometimes need to ask to have them cleaned. 

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.