Editor’s note: Every year, dozens of expats suffer food poisoning from what they believe is eating food purchased at local mercados. Fish and meat are the usual suspects. Writer Christopher Lux takes a look at Ecuador’s fishing business and shares tips from the locals on how to buy fresh fish. For information about picking the safest beef, chicken and pork, click the link to an earlier article at the bottom of this article.
By Christopher Lux
General Villamil Playas — better known simply as Playas — is a small coastal city southwest of Guayaquil known for its fishing industry and seafood. Every morning, small wooden fishing boats leave the shore equipped with coolers for storing their catch.
Other boats are more of a raft with four logs tied together and guided by a large, colorful sail. Some of the boats return by that night, while others stay out for about three days.
Birds swarm around the area where the boats pull in with the catches and pickup trucks meet them on the shore, dodging beach goers and ice cream vendors. The arriving boats are filled with corvina (sea bass), camarones (shrimp), almejas (clams), conchas (black clams), ostras (oysters), calamari, cangrejo (crab), and langosta (lobster).
At least one extremely large fishing ship can be seen on the horizon at all times of the day from Playas’ beach. Some evenings, the sun sets behind about 20 of the large ships. These ships stay out for a month at a time. The bottom part of the boat houses a large cooler area for the catch, preserving their products. Most of this, though, ends up in supermarkets.
It’s the fish that comes in on the small boats that you find in markets and at the seafood restaurants that line the beaches. And, when you eat these, you’re counting on the fishermen, their coolers, the handling of the product in the markets, and the age of the seafood to prevent you from getting sick. All this, in addition to how you handle the seafood, determines how safe the fish is.
In mountain cities like Cuenca, the fish are trucked in from coastal towns like Playas and sold in markets near the meats sections. On the coast, though, the fish have their own markets.
The fish market of Playas, for example, is on the sand. It’s where the boats pull in. If you know enough Spanish and know what you want, you can even buy at a low price from the fishermen as they arrive. The market in Playas consists of about 10 concrete tables covered in whatever fish came in on the boats that day.
At the end of the market, just past the tables, fishermen play cards, tell stories, and catch up on sleep in hammocks. Cats and birds wander the area looking for discarded fish parts. Early in the morning is the best and cleanest time to shop. By 10 a.m. you’re walking in fish guts and scales. Here, you can buy the fish whole or filleted. And you can buy as much or as little as you want.
The waves crash next to you, kids swim in the water, teenagers take selfies in front of the ocean, and birds fly overhead. It’s almost—I repeat, almost—certain you’ll get some good, fresh fish when you’re standing next to the water as you shop. But that’s not a guarantee. You can’t be certain about the fishermen’s handling techniques or how old the product is. And the freshness is even less of a guarantee when you start moving further away from the ocean, to Guayaquil, Cuenca, Quito, and so on.
How to choose the freshest fish
If you’re on the coast, the best way is to buy fish is from a “day boat” as they pull in. Of course, not many people are in that situation. So how do you know if you’re getting fresh, safe fish in the markets?
I’m no fish expert, so I reached out to a chef with many years of buying and cooking experience. He told me what how he determines the freshness of the fish he buys and his rules are applicable to fish purchased either on the coast or in the mountains.
First, if the fish is whole:
1) The eyes should be bright, clear, and glassy. If they’re getting dull and gray/foggy the fish is old.
2) The skin/scales should be bright and almost metallic looking. If the skin is becoming discolored, the fish is beginning to go bad.
3) It should smell like clean ocean water, a little briny. If there’s any bad odor to it at all, stay away.
4) The gills should be a really bright vibrant red. If they’re starting to fade and look dull, the fish isn’t fresh.
If you’re looking at cut fillets:
1) The skin should still look bright and metallic.
2) The smell should still be like fresh ocean water or like nothing at all—no funky odors.
3) The flesh should be nice and firm, not soft and mushy.
4) There should be no milky residue or liquid on the flesh. Milky residue indicates the beginning of rot.
Then, after buying a whole fish or piece of fish, the absolute best thing you can do is get it home as quickly as possible and keep it on ice in the fridge. The colder the fish stays the fresher it will be when you cook it. Just putting it in the fridge isn’t good enough. Put the fish in a dish, put a plastic bag filled with ice on top of it, and put the whole thing in the fridge. This is true for any raw seafood. The fish should never be sitting in water — that’s why you use a plastic bag. Then, as the ice melts it isn’t in direct contact with the water.. Water quickly deteriorates the quality of the fish.
We all know that Ecuador has wonderful coffee, bananas, and flowers to offer the world. But its seafood is something that should not be overlooked. If you’re careful when shopping in the markets, you’ll have access to an array of affordable and delicious seafood.
It is important to note that food poisoning is not always the result of food eaten at the last meal. On average, less than half the cases of food poisoning are caused by the most recent meal. In fact, researchers say that bacteria and some toxins in food often do not make a person sick for as long as 72 hours after it is consumed.
To read Christopher Lux’s article about picking the freshest beef, chicken and pork in Cuenca markets, click here.