Nearly every fish or other sea critter is edible, but not every one of them is edible raw. Raw fish has been in fashion in the West for some time, but sushi and sashimi have been part of Japanese cuisine for centuries. When making either at home, it's best to follow their lead so you know which fish you can safely eat raw.
Sushi Bar Fish
For any raw dish, you'll find it best to stick with any fish you'd find in a sushi bar (sushi-ya, as they are called in Japan). This can be an issue if you've not dined in one before. Let's start you off with the classic raw fish you'll see in a Japanese sushi-ya:
- Tuna: A top choice, go with any sort of tuna, including bluefin, yellowfin, bigeye, skipjack, bonito, and albacore. There are a few rarer ones as well.
- Salmon: Though it is popular and commonly used for sushi, this particular fish does come with concerns about parasites. Be sure to freeze it first.
- Clams, Scallops, and Abalone: These mollusks are quite popular options. However, you'll want to avoid oysters. While they are tasty raw, oysters don't go well with sushi rice.
- Yellowtail: This is a type of jackfish called hamachi in Japanese. For many people, it is a favorite raw fish.
- Halibut or Flounder: The English names of these fish may not appear on a sushi menu. In sushi-speak, they are known as hirame.
- Squid: Even though it's common in sushi, squid is typically flash-cooked for a few seconds rather than served raw.
- Gizzard Shad: This baitfish the Japanese call kohada is esteemed in some circles. While it does have a very fishy taste, it is not in a bad way.
- Mackerel: Called saba or aji in Japanese, all forms of mackerel make excellent choices. They are always treated with vinegar before serving.
- Seabass, Porgies, and Snapper: All are bass-like fish, and all are commonly seen in sushi restaurants under the names of tai and suzuki. These too are often treated before serving raw.
To stay on the safe side, look for any farmed fish from the United States, Norway, Britain, New Zealand, Canada, or Japan. These countries have strict standards about cleanliness and you will not find parasites in their farmed fish—even freshwater fish such as trout or sturgeon.
Parasites are a fact of life when you eat meat. That's one reason why humans decided to start cooking their food thousands of years ago. Heat kills worms. So does frost, but some can survive a home freezer (although not a good box freezer).
For this reason, it is recommended that all seafood you decide to eat raw be previously frozen. It is simply safer that way. Yes, fresh is better in most cases, but even professional sushi chefs freeze their salmon first—salmon is unusually susceptible to parasites.
The critters you need to worry about are cod worms, seal worms, and tapeworms.
Cod worms are found in cod, haddock, pollock, and hake. They are easily visible to the naked eye and are easily removed if you catch them. Good New England fish houses "candle" their fish by putting the fillets on a lightbox to detect the worms. This is why cod is never seen at a sushi bar.
Seal worms are found in salmon, mackerel, Pacific rockfish, jacksmelt, some halibut, and other flounders, including shad on the West Coast. This is why mackerel are treated with vinegar in sushi preparation. These worms are little brown creatures that curl up like a spring. You can miss them if you don't look carefully, but if you are looking—and you should always look with jacksmelt and herring—you can pick them out.
Neither cod nor seal worms will kill you. If you eat one, they will typically pass right through your system and you will never know it. Sometimes they will successfully attach themselves to your stomach, causing nausea and abdominal pain. They'll die soon enough, but not before being unpleasant.
Tapeworms are far nastier. They live in lots and lots of freshwater fish, to the point that only the foolish person would even think about eating a wild trout or largemouth bass raw. Tapeworms can live inside people and can grow to 20 feet long inside you. Ick! Unless it is farmed, skip the walleye sashimi.
Another key factor in eating raw fish is freshness. A fish that has not been treated well from the second it came over the boat rail is not going to be a good fish to eat raw.
Sushi-grade fish are caught quickly, bled upon capture, gutted soon after, and iced thoroughly. This method matters a lot. A piece of fish can be perfectly good to eat cooked but very nasty to eat raw. Cooking kills a lot of bacteria and such that begin to accumulate in raw fish after it dies.
If you catch fish yourself and want to eat them raw, remember which fish you can do this with from the list above. It is not exhaustive, but it's a good guide.
If you catch such a fish, do as the pros do:
- Bleed it by slicing through the gills and/or cutting a slice near the tail all the way to the backbone.
- Gut the fish on the boat. Most worms that are found in fish once lived in the animal's guts, then migrated to the flesh after the fish died. Fast gutting prevents this in most cases.
- Bring ice on the boat, even in cold weather. Buy many pounds of ice, and then buy one more bag. You'll find that it's worth it.
Don't let all of this scare you: Eating raw fish is a wonderful way to enjoy seafood and many people eat raw fish regularly without issues. Just be smart about what you're doing and you'll be fine.