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DAVE’S DIGS: In search of the word for the flavour of fish

How do you describe fish that ‘tastes like the sea’?

Lately I have been using this column to discuss issues like homelessness and climate change, but today I’d like to dial down the politics and put a question to readers.

It’s something that’s been on my mind for a while. What is the word or phrase, if any, that best describes the flavour of fish that really tastes like fish yet isn’t “fishy.”

Given the importance of all things fish-related in the city of Campbell River, I figured that if there’s a word in the English-speaking world that describes this particular flavour, readers of the Mirror quite likely know about it.

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The question came up when I was trying to decide between two kinds of fish at a local eatery. I was told that one was “fishier,” but fishy in a good way, something difficult to explain because no word seems to exist to convey this taste sensation.

To say that something tastes or smells “fishy” generally means it’s unfresh, or that something’s not quite right about it. According to etymonline.com (an online etymology resource), the use of this term in the sense of “shady or questionable” was first recorded in 1840, possibly owing to the slipperiness of fish, if not the distinct smell of fish that’s past its prime.

It has been said that the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo – once the world’s largest wholesale seafood marketplace – never had a fishy stench, even though millions of kilos of fish changed hands there daily.

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One explanation was that the seafood was fresh and the facilities were clean, with the fish on ice and washed continuously. The Tsukiji market’s open structure also reportedly provided natural ventilation.

It has since been replaced by a new wholesale fish market called the Toyosu, which made headlines this month when workers complained of unbearably foul odours. An official from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government reportedly stated the stench was inevitable due to the building’s airtightness.

One food-service worker also informed me that a good rule of thumb for sushi is that the restaurant should smell like cucumber or watermelon – not fish – if the seafood there is really fresh.

As for the taste of good, yet fishy, fish: I found a discussion on this topic on Reddit, an online forum for discussions of important issues like this one.

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There were a few suggestions: someone noted that “piscine” is an adjective suitable for anything related to fish. This is true, but the word doesn’t really capture that good-yet-fishy flavour.

Someone else suggested “umami” – a Japanese word meaning “deliciousness” that has entered the English lexicon to indicate a savoury taste sensation. But this is too general, as it could just as well apply to any number of non-seafood products.

There are also folksy expressions like “tastes like the sea” or “tastes like the dock,” which I personally favour. But these could arguably mean anything ocean-related, including barnacle-covered wharves made of wood.

The best suggestions I’ve heard so far are “marine,” “oceanic” and “aquatic.” But maybe we need to need to look beyond the English language to settle this question. Or perhaps the right word hasn’t been invented yet. Please send your suggestions.

@davidgordonkoch
david.koch@campbellrivermirror.com

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