Spaniards take fish seriously. Go to a fish market in just about any major Spanish city and you will likely see more variety of fish and shellfish than anywhere in the world outside of Tokyo. As a rule, the quality is outstanding. (See my post "Scenes from Spanish Fish Markets").
In Spanish fish markets the majority of fresh fish are sold whole. The reason for this is simple: it is next to impossible to tell if a fish is truly fresh unless the head, skin, and scales are still on it.
Fish fillets, on the other hand, can look fresh when they are not. They can also be dyed, deodorized, or otherwise doctored. For this reason, in a Spanish market you won't see many fillets on the ice. You pick the fish you want, then ask to have it filleted, or cut into steaks, or whatever you want. It's done right in front of you, so you are sure you're getting the same fish you asked for. This keeps the standards of freshness extremely high.
Here in the U.S. it's a different story. I once bought some salmon fillets at a neighborhood supermarket. (There was very little to else to choose from). They looked perfect (bright salmon-orange) and had almost no smell (not even the "sweet" smell fresh fish should have). I cooked one for dinner and found it all but inedible. Despite the impeccable appearance of the fillets, the salmon was not fresh. I was going to throw the remaining fillets away, but I had to take an unexpected trip the next day and forgot. For over a week the salmon fillets sat in the refrigerator. I expected to find a smelly mess when I returned home, but I discovered something far worse. When I opened the fridge, I found the salmon fillets looked exactly the same as when I bought them. They were still orange. They still had no smell. They could have easily passed for fresh, even though they were far from fresh even a week before when I bought them. There was no telling how old those salmon fillets were. They seemed to have been embalmed.
Had the salmon been whole, I would have seen that it wasn’t fresh and known better than to buy it. No one has figured out yet how to make a whole fish look fresh when it isn't. After a couple of days on ice, the eyes of a whole fish begin to look cloudy. The scales lose their shine. The fish begins to smell, and no one wants to buy it anymore. This is one of the reasons why most U.S. supermarkets and even fish markets prefer to display the fish already filleted. It keeps the customer in the dark, and lets them go on selling less-than-fresh (and sometimes downright spoiled) fish.
If you want to eat fish the Spanish way, the first step is to buy fish in the Spanish way—whole. Look for a bright eye, shiny skin, a sweet smell. All are reliable signs of freshness.
Below is a picture of a pompano I found the other day at a little seafood market here in Central Florida. It was a truly beautiful fish and it tasted just as good as it looked. It’s bright eye and shiny silver skin were true indicators of its freshness.
The pompano was so fresh because it had been caught on the beaches just across the road from the seafood shop.
This brings me to another Spanish technique of buying fish: look for local varieties. When in Galicia, eat the Galician specialties—merluza (hake), percebes (goose barnacles), fresh sardines, and many, many others. When in Andalusia, try pescaito frito—an assortment of small Mediterranean fish fried in olive oil, or beautiful little clams called coquinas. . . There are dozens of choices just about anywhere you go in the country. In Spain there is a tremendous variety of seafood available because Spaniards appreciate this variety.
A variety of fish creates a variety of prices. This makes it possible to find outstanding bargains. The pompano was the least expensive fish in the shop (even thought it was probably the best fish in the shop) at least in part because it was (sadly) a little unusual. All the other fish on the ice were the typical overfished and way-overused grouper, snapper, tuna, and swordfish.
Unfortunately the pompano was the exception in other ways too. It was the only fish in the shop displayed whole. (All the others were filleted, so it was impossible to tell if they were fresh or not.) The pompano was the only fish that was truly local, too. (Right beside it was a previously frozen mahi mahi fillet imported from Costa Rica)
By asking for the whole, fresh, local, and (sadly) somewhat unusual pompano, I was buying fish in the Spanish way.
There is one last Spanish technique for buying fish I would like to mention: Be vocal. Follow the example of Spanish housewives. Tell the people behind the fish counter what you want. Tell them that you want a whole fish with a bright eye and shiny scales. Tell them you are dissatisfied with all the usual fillets. Tell them that you want more variety and that you are so, so tired of the grouper-snapper-shrimp norm. Tell them you want a local fish.
If enough people here in the U.S. would buy fish the Spanish way, maybe the sorry state of our fish markets would improve.