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The Fish That Got Away

The Gulf of Mexico produces some of the world's most delicious seafood, but we're not processing it for sushi. What gives?

Flounder isn't the only fish in the Gulf that could easily be used in sushi preparations if only it were harvested correctly: There's red snapper as tai, flounder as hirame, Spanish mackerel as saba, amberjack or cobia as hamachi, tuna as toro.

But Gulf fisherman aren't going to start fishing for a market that doesn't exist.
_____________________

"The Japanese deem the Gulf of Mexico to be a toilet," says Carl Rosa. "Even though that's absolutely unfair."

PJ Stoops and Shinobu Maeda would love to sell sushi-grade Gulf fish at Louisiana Foods.
Groovehouse
PJ Stoops and Shinobu Maeda would love to sell sushi-grade Gulf fish at Louisiana Foods.
Jason Hauck, executive chef at Soma Sushi, plating his Gulf-caught snapper sashimi last year.
Photo courtesy of Jason Hauck
Jason Hauck, executive chef at Soma Sushi, plating his Gulf-caught snapper sashimi last year.

Over a simple meal of saba and tamago nigirizushi and tempura at Zushi one quiet afternoon, Rosa is explaining the severe image problem the Gulf of Mexico has abroad. Rosa's background in Japanese culture and cuisine is as extensive as his roots along the Gulf Coast; the New Orleans native was the former executive director for the Japan-America Society and currently works with a number of local Japanese restaurants on making their traditional menus more accessible to Americans.

What's ironic is that Japanese longline fishing vessels once navigated our waters, the 200-foot-long vessels pulling in bluefin and yellowfin tuna. On board, the fish were quickly processed and flash-frozen for transport back to Japan. International fishing laws have made these Japanese fishing fleets more or less obsolete in recent years, but our waters were considered attractive hunting grounds as recently as the late 1970s, according to an 1979 article from Marine Fisheries Review.

It isn't just the Japanese who have misconceptions about the Gulf. Ask any sports fisherman about eating Gulf fish raw, and most of them will laugh at you. And even among those who venture past the warm, muddy waters on the continental shelf and out into the deep, cold ocean, there is an idea that the Gulf is dirty.

There's also the issue of parasites and bacteria. Fishermen and chefs alike are convinced that Gulf fish are swarming with deadly microbes — deadlier, for some unknown reason, than all of the other microbes everywhere else.

"I guarantee that in other fish swimming in the Pacific or even off the coast of Hokkaido, there are parasites," Rosa laughs. "I mean, of course there are parasites. They're not swimming in Ozarka water!"

PJ Stoops has eaten his Gulf catches raw his entire life and never suffered any ill effects. "There's bacteria everywhere in the world — it's inconsequential," he says. "The FDA doesn't consider [Gulf fish] hazardous or that they shouldn't be eaten raw — there's no real reason it's not an intrinsically good product."

Anyway, Stoops says, "Several types of parasites are of interest to the FDA, and the really nasty ones are found in cold saltwater — like nematodes — but they don't cause a long-term problem. You can't get an infestation of worms like you could from eating wild salmon raw."

That's right: Those wild-caught salmon that everyone is so fond of carry a dangerous, mammal-dwelling parasite that can only be killed by freezing. And yet we eat it. In fact, salmon (along with tuna) is the most popular fish in any given sushi restaurant, its extremely fatty flesh easy for even novice sushi "chefs" to cut. Mackerel — an equally popular fish, especially in Japan — also contains parasites, but Japanese sushi chefs serve it raw regardless.

Another hurdle of perception is the almost ingrained idea that fish from the "warm" waters of the Gulf of Mexico wouldn't be fatty enough. It's true that mackerel and salmon are popular because they're fatty, and they're not found in the Gulf. It's also true that the colder the water, the fattier the fish.

But there are plenty of extraordinary fish dwelling in the deep, blue, breathtakingly clear waters off the continental shelf. "If we feel really hot, we try to get cold. So do the fish; they go to cold water," says Shinobu Maeda, a 20-year veteran sushi chef who works at Louisiana Foods with Stoops. "The fish know where to live."

Bluefin tuna can dive to icy depths 3,000 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf, depths that require the tuna to be fatty to protect itself from the cold. That tuna is extraordinary.

And, in fact, so is the fish from "warmer" waters: snapper, flounder, amberjack. It doesn't have to come out of cold waters to be eaten raw. "I don't think the temperature of the water matters in the Gulf," says Maeda.

To Rosa, the Gulf's image problem is ridiculous. "I don't care what anyone says," he says as we finish our lunch. "Growing up in New Orleans, when I had Blue Point oysters and blue claw crab, my eyes would roll back in my head they were so good."

"It's worthy. Gulf seafood is worthy."
_____________________

Sushi is one of the things that Manabu Horiuchi does best. The executive chef at Kata Robata, Hori-san (a title of respect) is regarded as one of the best sushi chefs in the city. He began his career as a sushi chef over 20 years ago, in Tokyo, and was brought to Houston to serve at the Japanese consulate. Eventually, he left the consulate to work at Kubo's, before moving on to Kata Robata, where I spoke to him one rare quiet afternoon.

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34 comments
Cassandra Santos
Cassandra Santos

Fantastic article. I'm committed to enjoying sushi in Houston and I find local authorities to have an almost signature opinion on sushi-related topics. I believe that this article hit the nail on the head. Jason Hauck knows what he is talking about; his experience speaks for itself. Carl Rosa is considered on the highest authorities on Japanese culture when referencing to Americans as well as being the founder of the nations largest sushi group. Manabu Horiuchi's committment to his craft speaks volumes to me as well. Well done, Katharine Shilcutt.

pritikina
pritikina

Excellent read but even as a Houstonian I totally get why the Gulf gets the bad rap. I mean, we're so close to refineries and a massive international port we see how much pollution and run off we drain into the Gulf. Plus, we're advised to avoid raw oysters (or warned at least) during the summer months. It makes sense to also avoid raw fish from the same waters.

AshelyWine502016
AshelyWine502016

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Ben
Ben

You claim that a metal wire should be run up the length of the flounder's spinal chord...this is incorrect. The wire should actually be inserted into the neural cavity.

Also, bluefin tuna has been actively fished for 60+ years for its delicious meat; never been considered a "trash fish".

The ike jime method is just that...a method. There is fish considered "sushi grade" that has never been processed using this method. To say no fish coming out of the gulf isn't "sushi grade" merely because it wasn't processed using the ike jime method is misleading and wrong.

Just thought I'd clarify some things...

Mern721
Mern721

We had ceviche at Xuco Xicana last week made from bycatch fish. It was excellent! JJ and other local chefs have started a trend which I hope carries over into sushi....

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

Nice article. And if you think bluefin tuna had a dramatic perception change, look up lobster's history. They used to be considered trash, as well.

Barbounia
Barbounia

I think this article also helps illustrate fishing practices in the Gulf in general. I have spoken to Gulf fishermen who sadly cannot supply fish that are found in abundance in the Gulf because of fishing rules largely dictated by more powerful lobbies than the needs of chefs who want particular fish for their menus. From what I have been told, the Shrimp Lobby has created sytems restricting many kinds of fishing. As a result, staggering amounts of fish that would be outstanding for restaurant use (Sardines and Red Mullet) are left to die on boat decks and docks because of Shrimp Lobby has created laws prohibiting net catching of these smaller fish. Seems like something that needs to be examined and changed.

Scott Bodenheimer
Scott Bodenheimer

If sustainable fishing practices using Japanese preparation for sushi grade fish were possible then that would be great. But popular sushi menu items like eel (unagi) and bluefin (toro) aren't sustainable. There isn't a large enough population of these fish to continue their exploitation as a food resource. It isn't ethical to eat animals that are at risk of extinction. I don't care how good they taste.

JeNeSaisRien
JeNeSaisRien

I have a feeling that this shall not be my last comment to this article (or to the comments following). First, responding to MadMac- sewage runoff is a serious issue, and one that can and does affect coastal seafood sources. However, I assume that MadMac is aware that sewage and industrial pollution occurs in ALL coastal areas of the world, and is not magically limited to the Gulf of Mexico. That being said, I agree that the issue is important- but no more or less than anywhere else. Seems like the prevailing attitude is that the Gulf is afflicted with man-made woes, whereas waters from afar are somehow cleaner by default. This I have a problem with. The Gulf needs help, but so do all of our oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. Rather than casting afar for seafood, it seems to me the rational thing to do would be to insist that our own waters and coastal habitats be rehabilitated, rather than relying on seafood from far away. Not an easily achievable goal, admittedly, but it is the proper course of action. In pursuance of this goal, why not get people invested in the possibilities?

Second- oysters are not bottom feeders. They are filter feeders, which might seem like a minor distinction, but not in the context of foodborne illnesses. Yearly closures or advisories concerning consumption of raw oysters in the Gulf are generally (though certainly not always) due to the presence of vibrio vulnificus during warmer months. This is not a new phenomenon- shell middens along the Texas coast attest to the fact that indigenous peoples of Texas (specifically the Karankawa) migrated to the coast every year during the cooler months, and avoided shellfish during the summer. Certainly, higher concentrations of nutrients can and will foster explosive growth of bacteria, and this does have an exacerbating effect on growth of vibrio, but the main determinant of growth is temperature. Concerning flounder (and other coastal finfish), the issue is a bit trickier, as vibrio will tend to concentrate not in the muscle tissue of the fish, but in the entrails- which means that coastal fish should ideally be consumed raw only in colder months, though that would seem to me to more a precautionary measure more than anything else.

As for parasites, there are essentially two kinds: Those which may survive and thrive in the human gut, and those which cannot. Parasites in Gulf seafood tends to fall into the latter category, whereas most of the really nasty parasites which can survive our body chemistry are found in colder waters (the article confused that issue a bit). This would be no consolation to someone afflicted with a parasite, but it is a fact. Adding to the confusion is the fact that a few of the dominant Gulf species (specifically amberjack and drum) are known for carrying large visible worms- never mind the fact that those worms cannot survive in a human.

All waters of the world are in trouble- no exceptions. The quicker we realize this, the better we can react. Singling out the Gulf makes no sense.

Eric Henao
Eric Henao

Wow. Really fucking awesome article K! Through, well written and seemingly well researched. Congratulations on a damn fine job! (Flick nose at all the naysayers of your past…)

MadMac
MadMac

"The Japanese deem the Gulf of Mexico to be a toilet," says Carl Rosa. "Even though that's absolutely unfair."

Hello, Mr. Elephant in the room, why is this "absolutely" unfair?

Ms. Shilcutt, you give us examples, of our ignorant misconceptions and the best argument in favor is "the fish aren't swimming in Orzarka." Sorry. As much as the Press likes to laugh at east Texas and Pasadena, that sewer water goes some place. When I read a warning, (yearly) to avoid raw gulf oysters, I think I know where the waste is going. And while I don't have a degree in marine biology, it seems I read that flounder are bottom-feeders, just like oysters. Now, if I'm wrong, I'll sit in the corner and wear the funny hat but in five pages, I think a stronger defense could've been crafted than "try it, everybody else is doing it."

J.Zelko
J.Zelko

Great article! Much love for the Hori, Fisch & the Ike jime....

David Schlessinger
David Schlessinger

Ben, regrettably, you are incorrect about Blue Fin. Otoro and Chutoro, from Blue Fin Tuna (in the Hyogo region) of Japan, was considered garbage and fed to cats. Due to its limited quantities, it wasn't considered a suitable commodity for the marketplace, especially in the capital of Kobe. Only after its flavor was deemed acceptable (and the idea grew on Japanese citizens) was the idea of selling it to the marketplace considered a good idea. Today, it's a premium. The same equation of public acceptance occurred with the lobster.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I definitely wasn't clear on the neural cavity/spinal cord distinction, and for that I apologize. However, bluefin was considered trash fish as recently as the early 1970s. That's when the market for it exploded in Japan. I've read about this from many different sources (Sasha Issenberg's book is great, as is Trevor Corson's The Zen of Fish). And here's an article from a 2006 fishing magazine on the rise of bluefin's popularity over the years: http://www.nycflyfishing.com/W...

JakeJackson
JakeJackson

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Lumiix GF 1 Camera that we got for $ 38.41 there arriving tomorrow by UPS. I

will never pay such expensive retail prices in stores again. Especially when

I also sold a 40 inch LED TV to my boss for $ 635 which only cost me $ 61.74

to buy. Here is the website we use to get it al from, http://EgoWin.com

JeNeSaisRien
JeNeSaisRien

who was talking about unagi or bluefin in that article? Though both species exist in the Gulf, neither are fished to any extent at all (bluefin is basically impossible these days, given weak hooks and possession requirements on board commercial vessels, and freshwater eels are almost never found commercially).

MadMac
MadMac

Correct me if I'm wrong but I thought fish from the Gulf was the subject of the article. So my questions (singling out the Gulf) made some sense, professor. The rest of your obvious scholarship was very informative and yet again, completely off the mark of my questions but I think that's my fault.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

This: "Rather than casting afar for seafood, it seems to me the rational thing to do would be to insist that our own waters and coastal habitats be rehabilitated, rather than relying on seafood from far away. Not an easily achievable goal, admittedly, but it is the proper course of action. In pursuance of this goal, why not get people invested in the possibilities?" Bravo.

Omi Tanaka
Omi Tanaka

Mr. Rosa is accurate. There's a double-standard regarding the Japanese mindset when it comes to sushi/fishing and his point is well made. Off the coast of Tottori, Japan (in the Tottori Prefecture), the Japanese consistently fish in the Sea of Japan where the Chinese and Japanese utilize it as a fishing haven and waste depository as well. However, while they deem the fish and seafood from Yonago and Hyogo to be outstanding, they frown a disapproving expression at the Gulf.

Jaredrf
Jaredrf

The real elephant in the room is the idea that....ready for this...all oceans are connected!In addition, Houston is not the only city in the world with water treatment plants and industrial sectors that produce pollution that is eventually deposited into the water.The ignorant and basically stupid misconception that the gulf of mexico is "dirty" has been annoying my whole life, and its truly shocking how many locals from the gulf region believe this to be true mostly on the basis that, "it just looks dirty" (mostly applies to upper Texas coast to Mississippi coast). Fact: the clarity of the water at Galveston is not an accurate measure of the purity of the water. There are other factors that create that....look it up sometime.I've been a fisherman of gulf coast fish since about age 8, mostly inshore species, and have always wondered why these delicious fish are not used for sushi. This article makes perfect sense, thanks for the interesting read!

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

The annual raw oyster warning has to do with vibrio, which has nothing to do with a body of water's cleanliness. It has everything to do with avoiding raw oysters during the warm summer months.

To wit: "Vibrio vulnificus is a gram-negative bacterium that occurs naturally in warm, unpolluted seawater. Vibrio vulnificus abundance is positively correlated with seawater temperature, and warmer water temperatures are linked to an increase in Vibrio vulnificus related illnesses, i.e., warmer summer months have a significantly higher number of Vibrio vulnificus related illnesses reported than do cooler winter months." You can read more here: http://www.beoysteraware.com/v...

The point of the article, however, is that water is "dirty" to some extent all over the world. If a coastline has been developed, the water off that coastline is no longer pristine. Period.

Scott Bodenheimer
Scott Bodenheimer

Did you know that unagi and bluefin are collapsing fishstocks? Very few sushi chefs care to tell you that, although they are well aware with their pricing, that these fish are becoming scarce. The reason you can't find adult eels in their natural environment around the world anymore is that all the juvenile eels are harvested in coastal rivers and then flown overnight to eel fattening farms in China and Taiwan and Japan. Enacting sustainable fishing standards for sushi grade fish in the Gulf is much more important, than somebody exploiting this fishery "goldmine". People have a habit of being really selfish where their gullets are concerned, and standards for protecting species differ culture by culture. The Japanese still eat dolphin for example. You can find more information about sustainable commercial fish at the Monterrey Aquarium website.

MadMac
MadMac

Yeah, thanks, Captain Over Simplification. Seems I read that the biosphere connects us all. And yet construction firms haven't jumped through their behinds to build master-plan communities in Chernobyl's contamination zone. Go figure. And proximity is part of what I questioned. The Gulf is the petrochemical epicenter of the US. There's several hundred oil rigs spewing into the water and five states dumping sewage into the northern Gulf, so no it's not "clean."

The questions I had while reading this article, were simple, (like your logic). First how does the consumer know the fish is safe. The best answer in five pages (and your succinct insight) seems to be "well, it's no more dangerous than fish from anywhere else."

Un huh.

Second, why would I risk hours of porcelain time (if not liver damage or parasitical infection) for taste which is subjective. The best answer in five pages, seemed to be, "well, everybody else is doing it."

Yeah, that's convincing, when I was 12. Your crack "look it up sometime," was as inane as it was it was useless.

My final take on this (Gulf sushi) is the same for other food vogues, (steak tartar, carpaccio, runny eggs, raw milk cheese, etc) is you can have my share of it. I wouldn't cheat you of it.

MadMac
MadMac

Thank you for your thoughtful answer. I find the information insightful, not especially compelling but insightful.

JeNeSaisRien
JeNeSaisRien

First, many apologies for popping off like that yesterday....my ire was up, and I wrote before reflecting. Yes, I am very aware of the status of those fish, and I never eat them. You are absolutely right. And, believe it or not, I am very aware of fisheries issues globally, not just in our backyard- perhaps more so than the overwhleming majority of folks around. I was merely commenting on the fact that no one is talking about utilizing those species from the Gulf in a sushi context. In my opinion, unless the species chosen for this ike jime program are rationally chosen, then the program makes no sense. For example, I would suggest the use of ALMACO JACKS. Given their life history and abundance in the wild, they would make perfect sense. I would be much less enthusiastic about Golden Tilefish, for example. And even the flounder, though it is famously good for raw applications, is problematic unless the harvest methods and size of the fleet is rigorously regulated.

I completely agree with you, though, in your main point. And again, sorry for the foolish and unwarranted response.

MadMac
MadMac

What ever hole I'm digging is my problem. Your little mail issues are your problem.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

Shut up, already. You just keep digging a deeper hole for yourself, and I'm tired of seeing your crap popping up in my mail.

MadMac
MadMac

So there are not oil rigs spewing into the Gulf? Or is five states dumping sewage into the Gulf the weak part? Or my contention that the Gulf is the U.S. petrochemical epicenter the gross exaggeration? Oh, it must be my weak belief that since the fish are swimming in this crap it might be a good idea to avoid the fish or cook the fish to 145F.

Just so I know for future reference, what part of my questions are silly and/or lacked common sense? Or should all questions be fielded through your good offices for merit?

For the third time, I don't have an argument, I have questions. Look up the difference. What's your dog in this fight? A restuarant or supply company, maybe?

As for my irrational fear, well, no, it's more a matter of unfortunate experience with poorly handled food, usually through "common-sense" practices that don't do so hot in execution. Reading the whole five pages, I looked for answers, for an opportunity to find out more and possibly revist an idea. I found a lot of pitch but not much else. Oh yeah, about sarcasm, your wit is as weak as your spelling.

Jaredrf
Jaredrf

Its called sarcasm sir...and of course you didnt prove anyone wrong because your retort was weak at best and is based on gross exaggerations not reality. Your questions were silly and lacked common sense. This is not a debate or a thesis defense since you have no leg to stand on and your whole argument is based on your irrational fear of raw food in general. Before you finished reading the article, you probably had your mind made up, and why not, your a genius(sarcasm)!

MadMac
MadMac

I neither attempted, nor acheived proving anyone wrong. See, it's a comment board, not a thesis defense. Further, I asked questions and then challenged the answers-- in the same spirit in which the answers were written. And I think the term is a debate, chief.

Jaredrf
Jaredrf

What a great response, I guess you proved me wrong on all fronts. You might want to take your own advice and sit this one out because the more you write, the more you look foolish and sadly uninformed.I worded my comment purposely simple so folks can quickly get the point and move on...it's not my goal to educate you or anyone else. Nothing I wrote was designed to be a "crack", just figured explaining all the factors that give upper Texas coast to about the Miss coast a muddy water color, and why south of matagorda and east of Alabama is much clearer was best kept for another day. And no, none of the factors include industrial waste runoff. Don't be so damn sensitive and don't attempt to quote your own twisted interpretation of my words and pass it off as my "insight". Quotes are typically word for word chief, not whatever suites the argument your having with yourself.

MadMac
MadMac

I glad you got that big thought off your miniscule brain before you hurt yourself. BTW, your last line was more or less what I was trying to say, genius.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

I rarely respond to posters, but you are an absolute idiot.

I'm ok with that, though. Please keep eating whatever crap you deem safe.

 
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