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You've just been served a glistening tray of sushi. The salmon practically quivers with freshness and vitality; the yellowtail snapper looks like velvet, laid out over the rice; and the tuna is the most tempting of all, the rich, ruby redness beckoning your first bite. You decide to eat the tuna first, lift a piece of the lightly chilled fish to your mouth, bite down, and taste ... sailfish.
Or do you? Would you really know the difference between tuna and sailfish, or something else that looked like tuna? Charles Greenfield, travel editor of the Coral Gables Gazette and an avid fisherman, says raw sailfish "looks very much like raw tuna." So while you might think the tuna seemed a little anemic today, or that it smelled just slightly different than usual, once you dunked it in wasabi-spiked soy sauce, chances are any noticeable discrepancies would be obliterated.
That's what the sushi chef at Su-Shin in North Miami Beach was counting on when he purchased illegally caught sailfish and passed it off as tuna to his customers. According to the Sun-Sentinel, Su-Shin was one of four restaurants busted during an undercover operation that took more than three years to come to fruition. (The other three are in Broward County.) At these restaurants the chefs would buy the sailfish for about 50 bucks each from the back of pickup trucks, calling them "skinny marlin" as a code name for sailfish, which is illegal to have on the premises without a license. Then they'd cut off the bills and fillet them. Voilà: instant tuna. And at easily half the price, since a whole tuna costs 100 smackers or more.
Meanwhile the customer is paying for tuna, the wholesale cost of which is built into the price on the menu. So yeah, patrons should feel justified anger at being duped by the sushi bars. But the truth is, restaurants make substitutions all the time, and the food you're eating is not necessarily what's listed on the menu. Nor do all the replacements come through back-door deals. The subject is so sensitive -- and the problem so widespread -- that hardly anyone I spoke with for this article would allow me to use his name.
For instance a rep from a large-volume food distributor in Miami says the restaurants he services "order a lot of tilapia, but I haven't seen tilapia much on the special boards." Instead, he notes, the restaurants will relabel tilapia (which is a pleasant white fish that has been known in the past to be both cheap and plentiful) as grouper, which is trendier, and sell it for twice as much. Grouper, in turn, my source admits, often is substituted for the more expensive mahi-mahi. And a new fish, Cape Capensis, has hit the American market. Cape Capensis is a species of hake that resides in South African waters, and has a taste and texture similar to cod. So naturally CC, selling wholesale for about $40 less per 40-pound package than cod, currently is proxy for all the fish that cod used to stand in for.
This kind of swapping isn't just limited to fish. Back in the Eighties, when milk-fed veal was popular, restaurants used to sub pounded pork fillets. Today eateries use turkey products instead of chicken, especially in salads. Indeed I once complimented a deli's chicken salad, only to be told it actually was made from turkey, which has a bigger breast and is easier to handle. As for beef, "Nobody, nobody, nobody is serving prime meat these days," the purveyor reports. "We don't even sell prime. It's impossible to get. We sell choice. So if you see prime meat on a menu, unless it's in the finest restaurant with a 30-year history, it's probably choice." And the folks selling choice? "They're probably buying select," or the lowest grade, says my source.
Of course everybody would like a foolproof method for being able to tell if the food offered on the menu is the same as what's brought to the table. But there really isn't any. The best you can do is (1) go to a reputable restaurant, and (2) know your fare -- what it should taste like, what the texture is supposed to be. But for all that, even food critics can be fooled. Several of my colleagues admit they've been duped in the past, or think they have. Because sure, give me a taste test with pounded pork on one side and milk-fed veal on the other, and I no doubt can identify which is which. But cover said pork with crabmeat (or Sea Legs) and hollandaise sauce, call it veal Oscar, and you have a shot at playing me -- or anyone -- for a culinary fool.
But even when you might suspect gastronomic sleight of hand, you can never be sure unless the sea scallops wear little signs that read, "Hey, I'm made from re-formed shark meat." Worse, you can't accuse a restaurant without proof (though you can pass a hint on to the Better Business Bureau), the kind that would entail taking a sample of the specimen to a laboratory and having its DNA analyzed. Which, believe me, I was tempted to do when that little Vietnamese place in South Miami-Dade told me the dark, gamy flesh I was discreetly spitting into my napkin was pork.
Still, for all the unethical associations of mislabeling, it's the under-the-table bargains that worry me. The sailfish that were sold to Su-Shin weren't necessarily kept at the proper temperatures needed to preserve sushi fish. Hello, parasites and food-borne illnesses.
Other restaurants will buy barracuda from Sunday-afternoon vendors and put it on the menu as something else. This practice is extremely dangerous, because barracuda, which feed on reef fish, carry a toxin called ciguatoxin. This particular toxin in humans results in ciguatera, a neurological disorder that can cause abdominal pain and "pins-and-needles" sensations in the face, extremities, and private parts. Dr. Ram Ayyar, professor of neurology and vice chairman of clinical affairs at Jackson Memorial Hospital, specializes in the disease, and he says ciguatera "is often reported to be fatal but isn't. However, patients respond best when they are treated early." Which means if you've discovered a restaurant has served you barracuda instead of mahi-mahi, don't bother with the Better Business Bureau until after you've been released from Jackson Memorial. Then you have every right to complain to the bureau -- about your hospital bills.