Should you really avoid ordering fish on Mondays?

The day's work starts early at Tokyo's Tsujiki Fish Market.
The day's work starts early at Tokyo's Tsujiki Fish Market.
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

Long before most Tokyo residents have climbed out of bed, the day's activities at the nearby Tsujiki Fish Market are well underway. Inside the world's largest fish market, the atmosphere rings with the staccato cries of auctioneers standing on stepping stools in front of clusters of fish wholesalers. Enormous fresh tunas are bid on and won only to be sold a few hours later to Japanese customers. By the close of business in the evening, Tsujiki will have moved out of its doors close to 3,000 tons (2,721 metric tons) of more than 450 different kinds of fish.

If you're looking for fresh fish in Tokyo, Tsujiki Fish Market is the place to shop. Ships from the four corners of the ocean drop their catches at its docks, offering enough variety to satisfy any piscavore. Just don't plan to swing by on a Sunday. Like many major fresh fish markets around the world, the Tsujiki Fish Market is closed on Sundays -- and a handful of Wednesdays and holidays. In the United States, some of the larger coastal seafood markets will have retail and dining options open throughout the weekends, but by and large, Sundays aren't the prime day to cast around for fresh fish.

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This general rule of thumb about fish markets explains the rationale behind the modern maxim that you shouldn't order fish in a restaurant on Mondays. Sharp-tongued chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain gets much of the credit for spreading the adage. In his 2000 culinary tell-all, "Kitchen Confidential," Bourdain warns would-be diners against Monday's catch of the day specials at restaurants. Since most fresh fish markets are closed on Sundays, you'll be eating fish that's been sitting around for a few days. Although the restaurant may have properly refrigerated or even frozen it in the interim, Bourdain warns that by then, fish might be four or five days old [source: Bourdain].

Is Bourdain merely a cantankerous foodie who has unrealistic expectations for the quality of his meals? After all, the chef-turned-writer-turned-travel-show-host has also said he shuns mussels at restaurants unless he personally knows who's serving them [source: Bourdain]. Yet by the same token, one could also assume that such superior food taste comes paired with finer gastronomic intuition -- like knowing the perfect wine partner for that snapper, salmon or mahi mahi.

Knowing When and How to Order Fish

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It turns out that Bourdain makes a good point about proceeding with caution if you have a yen for fish on Monday. If you're dining near the coast or at a restaurant known for outstanding seafood, you probably don't need to pay attention to the calendar. But if, let's say, you're in Kansas City or Reno, saltwater fish must be shipped to the restaurant. Most fresh fish wholesalers can ship fish overnight, but that usually isn't going to happen on a Sunday.

One telling sign that a bistro might be trying to get rid of old fish is found on the specials board. On Sundays and Mondays in particular, if you notice a promoted fish dish drowning in a heavy sauce, steer clear. The sauce may be a flavorful mask for the stronger fishy taste that seafood acquires as it ages. And when in doubt, don't be afraid to ask. The server should be able to tell you where the fish came from and how fresh it is, especially at higher-rated restaurants.

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With fish as the primary protein on sushi restaurants' menus, does that mean the spicy tuna rolls that light up dreary Mondays are stuffed with old fish? Some sushi eateries aren't open then for that very reason. Overall, a slightly different set of health rules apply when it comes to serving raw fish. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that sashimi and other seafood intended for raw consumption must be frozen first to kill bacteria. Freezing may also be a routine step in the seafood shipping process that can preserve it for up to two years [source: Moskin]. Even in sushi's homeland, Japan, previously frozen seafood is routinely tucked into rice and nori rolls [source: Moskin].

If sushi isn't your cup of tea, and you still want fish on a Monday, you can always cook it yourself. Many retail fish markets get in fresh shipments every day that you can select from. When shopping for fish, it's important to follow your nose. The older the fish, the more pungent it becomes. A fresh fillet shouldn't smell particularly fishy; instead, you ought to detect a cucumber-like scent [source: Brown]. Also inspect the condition of the flesh. Go for fillets that appear brighter and slime free [source: Food and Drug Administration].

Or if you have an itch to travel, hit up Tokyo's Tsujiki Fish Market. Be sure to get plenty of sleep -- the tuna auction starts around 2 a.m.

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Sources

  • Bourdain, Anthony. "Things to avoid when eating in restaurants." The Guardian. Aug. 12, 2000. (April 7, 2009)http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2000/aug/12/features.weekend1
  • Brown, Alton. "Get the inside dish on shopping for fresh fish." MSNBC. Sept. 21, 2007. (April 7, 2009)http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20895552/
  • Food and Drug Administration. "Fresh and Frozen Seafood: Selecting and Serving It Safely." August 2006. (April 7, 2009)http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~lrd/seafsafe.html#shop
  • Mendelsohn, Michael. "Don't Dine Out on Mondays?" ABC News. May 4, 2007. (April 7, 2009).http://abcnews.go.com/2020/Story?id=3140192&page=1
  • Millburg, Steven. "Top 10 Seafood Markets." CNN. May 19, 2006. (April 7, 2009)http://www.cnn.com/2006/TRAVEL/DESTINATIONS/05/19/seafood.markets/index.html
  • Moskin, Julia. "Sushi Fresh From the Deep…Deep Freeze." The New York Times. April 8, 2004. (April 7, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/08/nyregion/08SUSH.html?ex=1396756800&en=14403a1246cf158f&ei=5007&partner=USERLAND&pagewanted=1