Grouper is a delicious fish, and if you order it now and again, some of what you’ve been eating is likely fake.

Whenever I visit Florida, I always make a point of scaring up some grouper, either in a market or a restaurant. It’s a fine fish, with lots of lush oils so that when you cook it, it stays buttery, moist, and flavorful, with firm texture, almost meaty.

I recently purchased some grouper from Carnivore, and it was superb, some of the best fish we’ve cooked at home. Eric Williams, fishmonger at Carnivore, gave us his take on the fish: “Grouper is a firm, mild white fish. There are hundreds of different groupers, hailing from all over the globe, but in the States, we most often see red and black grouper. Red tends to be firmer and more readily available. It lends itself well to sandwiches, grilling and other hearty recipes and techniques where its firmness can shine. I like it best sauteed in vegetable oil and finished with butter, but it stands up to full-flavored preparations, like blackening.”

We cooked our grouper in a little oil, and it was quite good, with excellent texture and flavor. Because of these qualities, grouper is frequently counterfeited. According to an Associated Press report, “Many restaurants in Florida have been caught passing off Asian catfish, tilapia or other cheaper species as grouper. Fake grouper is by far the biggest food-misrepresentation problem Florida inspectors handle, and it has turned up in all corners of the state.”

“I do have a very strong memory of eating in a Florida restaurant right on the water,” says Williams, “and I was considering ordering the grouper sandwich. Strangely enough, the menu had an asterisk next to the grouper sandwich, and when I went to the footnote, it said ‘Does not contain grouper.’” 

Oy.

Mislabeling fish is common. Red snapper, another meaty and delicious fish, is also frequently counterfeited, which is one reason why at some grocery stores, they keep the fish’s mottled red skin attached; the characteristic skin is a good indicator that what you have is, indeed, red snapper.

If you want to make sure you’re getting real grouper, go to a reliable vendor. “Our grouper usually comes fresh from the Florida side of the Gulf of Mexico,” says Williams. “This domestic fishery is heavily regulated for sustainability and enables fish to move quickly from boat to plate. We accept only whole, as-is grouper, so we can visually ID the fish before it even makes it to the fish case.”

Of course, if you’re eating fish, and it tastes good, the exact kind of fish you’re eating maybe doesn’t matter much…except that grouper is more expensive than a lot of fish, so you’re paying more than you should for counterfeits. I completely trust Eric and the guys at Carnivore to do their jobs and make certain their fish (and meat!) is properly labeled. The grouper we brought home from Carnivore was fantastic…and real.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...