How to Pick and Choose Ahi

And what to do when you get ahi back to your place.


Photos: Steve CzerniaK

How to choose ahi

You see the signs and labels in nearly every display case: grades marked as premium, good, No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3. What do they mean, exactly?

When it comes to categorizing the quality of a piece of ahi, every fishmonger sets its own standards. At Tamashiro Market, premium cuts have some fat, high grade means the cut is leaner and has a dark red color, and good means the cut is good for sashimi or poke and ranges from pink to light red. At Marukai, No. 1 grade includes chutoro, a fatty part, and comes from larger fish. Nos. 2 and 3 are lean red meat, with No. 3 taken from smaller fish, which cost less at the auction. If you’re not familiar with a store’s grading system, you have two options: Judge for yourself, or ask questions.

Fresh fish, when you look at it, you can tell,” says Nico Chaize, chef-owner of Nico’s Pier 38. “It’s firm, dense, its coloring is bright red if it’s lean, less red if it’s fatty. You can see the grain clearly.”

Taketoshi Gibo of Take’s Fish Market checks to make sure there’s no moisture seeping out from the flesh, an indicator that it might be less than fresh. And he puts a premium on texture. “When I buy fish, I’m not like sushi chefs. They look for fat content,” he says.
“No matter how fatty it is, if texture is not there, there’s no point.”

If you’re open to buying previously frozen imports, which are cheaper, check the label. Federal law requires labeling of previously frozen fish, the country of origin and whether it’s been treated to boost color.

How to store ahi

In an ideal world, fishmongers say, you’ll eat your ahi the same day you buy it, and come back the next day for more. The reality is often different. John Kaneko of the Hawaii Seafood Council recommends bringing home fresh raw ahi in an ice-filled cooler, then transferring it to a zip-top plastic bag and storing it in ice in your fridge. Both steps are important, Kaneko says, because the fish’s gorgeous red color is sensitive to temperature changes and contact with water.

Gibo recommends wrapping the fish in paper towels, then plastic wrap, and storing it in a cold part of the fridge. Fishmonger Masateru Nakazato has packaged premium ahi this way, frozen it and transported it to Japan in a blue ice-filled cooler. Both methods should keep the fish fresh for two days.

How to cut ahi

One smooth stroke: That’s the key. Smooth, even strokes make for beautiful surfaces on displays of raw fish and are one reason sashimi knives are so long and surprisingly heavy. Chefs who cut premium fish for sushi and sashimi never saw at the flesh, but simply lay the blade on the surface and let the knife and gravity do the work.

If you’re not inclined to spend the $500 that Gibo paid for his signed Karamatsu, he recommends a narrow, straight-edged slicing knife with a blade that’s at least 10 inches long.

And you don’t have to buy pre-cut blocks for sashimi and sushi. Fillets can offer the same quality, if not uniform rectangles, at lower prices. Just follow the long edge of the fillet, slice the fish into two or three long blocks, and slice those for sashimi.
When the knife starts to pull after a few strokes, says Guy Tamashiro of Tamashiro Market, wipe it off on a damp paper towel folded next to your cutting board, and it will glide again.