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Bite Me Cairo: Something Fishy

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Over time I came to realise that some people were simply so used to eating low-grade fish that when faced with the real thing they mistook it for being off. Such myths and misconceptions are boundless in the restaurant business.

Foodist at work, photo by Nada Badawi

So her royal self and a friend went for sushi the other night. Among other things they ordered salmon sashimi, one of her friend’s favourites. The waiter, being new and eager to please but not used to sushi lingo, repeated the order out loud, noting the miso soup, the tempura maki, the California roll, and the “raw salmon.”

“Raw salmon?” the friend questioned. “Ewwwww, no, we asked for salmon sashimi.” Which she enjoyed immensely once the young man had gotten it straight. “So fresh!”

A week later, at another restaurant, this same woman sent a grilled fillet of salmon back to the kitchen because it was still pink in the middle and thus clearly a threat to her gastro-intestinal health and happiness. Go figure.

Having owned my own restaurant in Zamalek for a number of years, (not anymore thank God), I can affirm firsthand that many customers are misinformed about what they are ordering and how to order it. We sold sushi too, and I cannot tell you the number of times we had people send back the salmon because it smelled like, well, salmon, a unique scent this fish picks up from eating ocean crustaceans and one of the qualities for which it is most highly prized.

Over time I came to realise that some people were simply so used to eating low-grade fish that when faced with the real thing they mistook it for being off. Such myths and misconceptions are boundless in the restaurant business.

To begin with, let’s get one thing straight: no salmon in Cairo is fresh. It all comes frozen, it is mostly farmed, not wild, and it mostly comes from Norway, often via China. This does not by any means indicate that it is bad. You can get some great salmon sashimi here, but don’t be fooled into thinking that one restaurant has fresher fish than another. It is all a matter of the quality of the supply and the way it is handled by the kitchen staff.

Why China? Because of the pin bones. Salmon contain a series of short, soft, sharp, intramuscular bones that remain, even after the fish has been filleted. You want those suckers out, but they’re a pain. So, in large-scale production,the fish are harvested in Norway, filleted, frozen, sent to China where labour is cheap, thawed, deboned, refrozen, then shipped back to Norway and distributed, where they are once again thawed in your favorite sushi joint. This is standard practice and absolutely safe.

Even your smoked salmon is frozen, often three times. Smoking is a way not to cook but to cure the meat and most big producers, like those companies that sell packaged salmon to Cairo supermarkets, buy the well-traveled, already twice-frozen fish frozen. They thaw it, dry it, salt it, and cold smoke it; meaning they suspend it for hours over a slow-burning (usually sawdust) fire that never exceeds 32˚C. They then slice, package, refreeze, and ship it. Again, this is standard practice and absolutely safe.

As for salmon fillets, the kind you buy for grilling or poaching at home, indeed, the kind the restaurants buy wholesale for grilling or poaching, it’s the same story. Thus it is not the “freshness” of a salmon that determines its taste, but where you get it from and what you do with it; and the only way to make it unsafe is to let it sit around too long after it has been thawed.

Which brings me to the brown bits. This is not bad fish. Another myth. The discoloured edges you sometimes find on smoked salmon come from the part of the fish that is closest to the skin. It is perfectly okay to eat it. What you don’t want to do is to leave that smoked salmon sitting around for a day or two after you’ve opened the package, because then it will go bad. You won’t be able to tell from the colour though, only the smell.

Which brings me, finally, to buffets and other baleful practices. As you know by now, safety in salmon is all about what happens to the fish after it is thawed, meaning you should never dine in an empty sushi restaurant; you should never succumb to the temptation of one of those all-you-can-eat sushi buffets; and, as a last piece of advice, the next time you are at a mega-wedding and mounds of smoked salmon are on offer, give it a pass. Especially if it is your own wedding.


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