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Buying Fish in Chinatown and Beyond

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Photos by Cynthia Lamb.

Neighbors ask me: Do you buy fish in Chinatown? I do. “Where?,” is the next question.  It’s not quite that simple. Buying seafood is a caveat emptor scenario; ignorance is not rewarded.

I know people who rarely eat seafood at home because they don’t know how or where to shop for it. I also know people who once randomly walked into an unfamiliar Chinatown fish monger, distractedly bought a piece of fish they found unsatisfying, then vowed never to shop for fish again in Chinatown. That’s just silly (and maybe a little racist). No one ought to sell “off” fish, but we live in an imperfect world, so buying fish without giving it a good look (and a good sniff) is foolhardy.

Any proud fish monger will let you sniff their fish. If they balk, don’t shop there.

Some fish are trickier than others. For example, I eat lots of herring, but only pickled, smoked or canned. You don’t see much fresh herring in markets because the stuff is so perishable it‘s not worth taking a loss on. Even if I found a source for fresh herring I’d be skeptical. I’d want it, but I’d hesitate. Fresh herring requires quite a bit of trust. The same is true of most oily fishes, such as sardines and mackerel. One should always be choosy when shopping for seafood, but some fishes require more choosiness than others. I shop at different places for different seafood items; with fish mongers one size does not fit all. Some things require going out of your way.

Pura Vida Fisheries, Tomkins Square Greenmarket

Scallops are one such thing. I don’t mess around with scallops of uncertain provenance. They’re expensive, and there are many degrees of freshness between “perfect” and “off.”  Some sellers soak them in a preservative solution that I find ruins their flavor. (I don’t buy them if they’re sitting in any kind of liquid – they must be dry). With anything best seared on the outside, barely cooked in the middle, freshness is paramount. I’ll cook scallops on Sundays, because that’s when Pura Vida Fisheries is at the Tompkins Square Greenmarket. They’re from Long Island, so the fish couldn’t be more local. The seafood here isn’t cheap, but enough scallops to make dinner for two can be had for well under ten bucks. I’d call that reasonable. Everything they carry is screamingly fresh – well worth the short trip north if you have a bicycle or don’t mind the Sunday M14A schedule. Tompkins Square may be a small greenmarket, but it’s worth checking out. (I also like the ground turkey from DiPaola Turkeys for making meatballs).

Rainbow Fish in the Essex Street Market is another popular neighborhood option – their fish is consistently good. Prices are reasonable, and a visit to the Essex Street Market is always a good idea. Some of my neighbors are second or third generation customers. You don’t develop that kind of customer loyalty without being trustworthy.

I’m not quite hip enough to know the best spots in Chinatown for buying live fish. (If you are, feel free to share that information in the comments section after this column). I mostly buy more sturdy seafood  in Chinatown: cod, flounder, tuna, squid, shrimp and farmed salmon all qualify. I’ll go for clams or mussels, too,  if the place has high turnover. The fish market at 250 Grand (corner Grand and Chrystie – the awning says “Ocean Star”) is my favorite. They move a lot of whole fish, too. You will get a few discards in their $4 bag of mussels, but the beards are already removed and it‘s enough to easily feed four. You won’t find Dover sole or sushi grade toro, but for your more pedestrian fish needs they’ve got you covered. Aggressive prices and high turnover combine to make quality seafood everyday affordable here. Some might find the service “Chinatown brusque”, but my experience has been that pleasantries are almost always returned in kind. (Crab fans take note: live crabs are in right now).

Once you buy your seafood bring it home and cook it ASAP. It’s much more perishable than meat. Here are a few  favorite fish recipes from my blog: fish stews, fish curry, seafood pasta, Chourico and clamsLebanese style fish fillet.  In the interest of original content here’s a very easy (and practically foolproof) recipe for mussels that always wows my dinner guests:

Mussels, Dutch Style

12-15 mussels per person, shells scrubbed
½ leek per person, washed and cut into rounds
1 Tbs butter per person
½ glass dry white wine per person
1 tsp heavy cream per person (or more to taste)

Sautee leek in butter in the bottom of a large pot. Add wine and mussels, cover and simmer until mussels have opened (shouldn’t take more than ten minutes). Discard any that fail to open. Place mussels in serving bowls. Add cream to liquid in the pot and ladle over mussels. Serve with a salad and crusty bread to sop up the liquid. Put an empty bowl out for the shells. And, of course, the remainder of the white wine goes with the meal.

If you don‘t normally do seafood at home remember this: be scrupulous about clean up after. Take out the trash when clean up is finished. The lazy who cook seafood at home will be punished with foul odors. Don’t be one of them.

JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well,  consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.

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  1. Deluxe Food Market 79 Elizabeth St: Beautiful filets of Grey Sole @ $3.69/lb. They have a large turnover, so it’s always fresh; I’ve had it a few times, always very pleased. They have tons of other stuff at low prices: fresh rabbit, quail, vine tomatoes @ $.99/lb (take that, Food Emporium!), etc. Chinatown is a treasure trove of fresh food, but you do have to check freshness. But I would do that anywhere.

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