Escolar: The World's Most Dangerous Fish

Escolar is the most controversial fish that you are likely to find in your fish market. This firm, white fleshed fish has an incredibly rich flavor, often described as 'succulent', or a fattier version of swordfish. Why so rich? It turns out that Escolar's diet contains food high in wax esters. Wax esters that are really difficult for Escolar to digest. As a result, these esters build up in the fish.

Where is the controversy in a buttery, delicious fish? I would say it is in the laxative like effect it has on a certain percentage of the population. Well, a 'laxative like effect' is how my fish monger described it. Others would describe it as closer to diahhrea. An expert would call it 'keriorrhoea'. Literally translated, it means 'flow of wax'. Oily orange droplets pouring out your pooper.  Keriorrhoea occurs because the wax esters in the flesh of the fish pool up in your intestine.

Some reports of Escolar related illness include cramping, nausea, diarrhea, the itis, and other abdominal pains.  This could be the result of severe Keriorrhea or could also be Scrombroid poisoning.  Escolar related Scromboid (or histimine poisoning) is the result of high levels of histidine being converted to histimine usually as a result of poor storage.

Hong Kong Protest Over Oilfish Sale.
Why would you eat a fish that has such terrible downsides? Two reasons:
  1. Escolar is delicious. Most likely, the same fatty ester in Escolar that makes you sick also makes it taste so damned good.
  2. Taste the danger! If you enjoy a sense of dining adventure, then consider Escolar the log flume of the culinary world.

Apart from all of the poop jokes I wanted to make, what really inspired me to write about Escolar is the lack of credible information on the subject.  The Canadian Food Inspection Agency suggests grilling, while Queensland's Health Agency states that cooking method does not matter.  It is really confusing because not only is Escolar sold under other names, but other fish are sometimes mislabeled as Escolar.  Doing some quick google searches, I created the following chart based on all of the references to escolar and oilfish being sold as other fish.  The most common form of Escolar trickery is to be found at your local sushi bar.  Any place selling white tuna or 'super white tuna' is more likely than not selling you Escolar.  White Tuna can technically be either Albacore Tuna or Escolar.  Albacore looks like pale tuna, while Escolar looks strikingly white.

This isn't confusing at all...
There are a number of reasons for this confusion.  Mostly, it is because suppliers and restaurants mislabel fish, either out of ignorance or fraud.  Another reason for the confusion is that Gempylidae, the family of fish that both Escolar and Oilfish belong to, has several other names.  According to Wikipedia, this family of fish is also called Escolars or Snake Mackerels. I have also seen at least one reference referring to Gempyldae as 'Oilfishes'. This means that the family name and the common species name can be the same.  There is also a segment of the population that thinks they were served Oilfish instead of Escolar, and that is what made them sick.  However, I haven't seen much scientific literature to back that up.  Both fish seem to have about equal chances of making you ill.

So I have a couple of quick tips to reduce the likelihood of getting sick from Escolar.  It is mostly gleaned from the Internet, but the most credible source I found was an excerpt of Nick Ruello's Report On The Oil Content, Composition, And The Consumption Of Escolar.
  1. Limit Quantity. Obviously, less is more when it comes to Escolar. Conventional wisdom suggests no more than a six (6) ounce portion. I suggest an even smaller amount the first time you try it.
  2. Tail portion. While oil distribution varies per fish, the cuts near the tail generally have lower ester count.
  3. Cooking Methods. Don't appear to make a difference. There are some sources that claim grilling will reduce the wax esters but there is at least one scientific report that found this to be untrue.  Wax esters are heat stable, so the only potential benefit of grilling is that they somehow leak out of the fish.  This can also be achieved by baking the fish on a rack causing the juices, which may or may not contain wax esters to drip into the pan below.
  4. Deep Skinning. With certain fish, this oil resides just under the skin of the fish. By removing the flesh close to the skin, you can reduce the amount of wax ester. While it is recommended to do remove the skin because of its high oil count, there isn't much evidence that deep skinning will help much.  
  5. Freezing.  also does not work.  Wax esters are not damaged by cold, even after extended stays in the freezer.
  6. Fishmonger Trust. Since there are other fish that also contain high level of wax ester, it is best to go to a reputable fishmonger.  Also, Escolar has some other toxins that can result in histimine poisoning if the fish isn't stored properly.  
  7. Pre-Existing Conditions. As always, pregnant women have no fun. Also, people with malabsorption or bowel problems should probably just stay away. Unless you find your bathroom comfortable and you dislike your pants.  
I followed most of the advice above the first (and only) time I prepared Escolar at home.  I still had ended up with my own British Petroleum style oil leak, endangering most of the local habitat, with several failed attempts to contain the spill.  If you find yourself in this situation:
  1. Well it depends. Actually, no it doesn't... wear Depends. 
  2. Replenish your bathroom reading materials. 
  3. Call in sick, or plan your day around proximity to the bathroom.
  4. Avoid Escolar in the future. The truth is, all you can really do is ride out keriorrhoea. It should only be a couple of days.  
Finally, if you developed a case of Keriorrhoea and you didn't knowingly order Escolar, then you should  think back the the last time you ate a piece of a mysteriously delicious white fish, and give them a piece of your mind... or a stool sample.

Now that you know the risks, and how to reduce the likelihood of soiling your pants/couch/good name, you can now buy escolar from Catalina Offshore, one of the best online providers of sushi grade fish:

By now it has occurred to you, that sharing a name with this fish is terrible.  And this is true.  But there is some serendipity between the fish and the author.  We are both simultaneously fatty, delicious, and will likely make you sick to your stomach when we are over-consumed.

If you have had any experiences with Escolar or Oilfish, or found anything inaccurate in this post, leave me a comment.

Due to the popularity of this post, I wrote a white tuna survival guide.  If you liked this post, please share it via one of the methods below.
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Unknown said...

My cousin bought half a kilo of this fish because the fish retailer said it is a blue marlin, (my cousin know nothing about fishes) buy this and we cooked it for dinner. The fish tastes really good and I was the one finishes it up. Then next morning when I woke up, i felt like farting, and i let it go...My brother laughed at me and we had a good laugh with my fart, but i felt something like warm in my panties and when I look at my back, there the orange thing in my shorts.. I felt disgusted and ran to the bathroom only to find out I only did not fart but pass out a poop... I cleansed myself and noticed its so greasy.., This made me worried for a day because when I look up in the internet passing oily-orange stool suggest an underlying health conditions such as celiac diseases and many more. I was so worried while i was browsing the web when I happen to find this article.. Thank you for this informative posts,it really helps.

Anonymous said...

I cannot thank you enough for this website! I have experienced this same thing most memorably on vacation after eating fish and it absolutely terrified me! Not only was I scared that I had something awful like cancer, but it caused me extreme anxiety to know that the leakage came with no warning or control. I ate what was called on the menu "arctic char" at a very expensive upscale restaurant/hotel in NYC and two days later experienced what everyone has described. Needless to say the next morning the trip by cab to the airport, security line and flight were most unpleasant. So happy to have solved this mystery, and I don't think I will ever eat fish again! Thank you!

Mike said...

Several years ago I had some Escolar at a local high-end restaurant. It was advertised as Escolar and I had never heard of it before but I'm always willing to try new things. It was absolutely delicious! Little did I know the price I would pay for this meal.

About 12 hours later, I found myself unable to leave the bathroom for more than 15-20 minutes. I endured this horror for 10 days. Around day 3, even the gentlest baby wipes felt like I was wiping with gasoline-soaked sandpaper. I ended up in the ER on day 6 where they gave me fluids because I was severely dehydrated. They even had to bring me a commode. They gave me some industrial-strength Imodium and put me on the BRAT diet.

This all happened about 8 years ago and my bowels are still not quite right.


Anonymous said... I totally just ate like 9 sashimi pieces of this fish and it was so good I had to google it ._. I have a Calculus final tomorrow morning. Send help.

Grampy said...

I was browsing round a car boot sale this morn and found two Polish girls selling smoked fish. One of bits of fish was around the size of a 1/2 pound block of butter so I asked the girl what it was and yes - you've guessed it - it was something I'd never heard of - Escolar. I love smoked food and asked her the price. It was £5 but being in my TOG mode I declined.

When I got home I googled it and found this blog. I am so grateful that my 68 year old ringpiece narrowly escaped an oily meltdown. Escolar? You can stick it up your arse!

Anonymous said...

I had orange roughy once: It was my Mom Mom's favorite fish and I had never had it before.
I experienced the orangy oil after effects : never again

Unknown said...

We live in Philippines and buy food from one of the largest chains here. They often have :Gindara" in their fresh fish dept. and the "gindara" is very reasonably priced (around 250 PHP) per kilo. We buy fish (& other meat) there often enough that the people there know I like meat of all kinds cut thicker than the traditional thickness here so will cut to my size requirements.
The last time we bought "gindara" I had them cut 4 steaks about double normal thickness so I got to watch them take fish out of their freezer to cut from. We then took it home, repackaged it into zip lock bags. (1 Steak usually makes a meal for 3 of us.)
We have been doing this now for about 6 months because this is really a beautiful, tasty, and easy to prepare fish that we enjoy and is in-expensive. We are also fortunate that we have never displayed any of the above symptoms (knock on wood), but even if we did, I think we would just add some vitamin C and a large citrus drink before our meal along with plenty of lemon juice on top of it during and after preparation after the first event.

DianaS said...

I love this site, and I have to return to it every now and then, just for sh*ts and giggles! I didn't think it was funny when I ate it in Hawaii. The fish was really delicious and I can eat just about anything. So I was surprised, to say the least, when I got up and had to hold my pant legs on the way to the bathroom. I swear that I "googled" orange bowel movement AS I sat on the toilet. Only then, did I know that I was not dying from some disease that makes your crap orange bubble-tea! It's actually as funny as hell now and makes for a great story-AFTER dinner! It's one of those things you should have on your bucket list. Or, at least have a bucket when you eat it! lol

Anonymous said...

This is ridiculous. World's most dangerous fish? It's POTENTIALLY a mild case of diarrhea at worst. The fact that people are actually protesting this is funny. I've never experienced the side effects in this article but if it keeps the Escolar population from being decimated I say believe everything you hear! More for me.

Anonymous said...

I have been enjoying escolar for years now and all of a sardine I too have developed a reaction to it which results in my washing-machine having to work overtime! So don't think you've escape tainting - 'tain't so

Oldnoob said...

How is "The World's Most Dangerous Fish" and all it does is give you diahhrea if you ate too much of it?

amie said...

Pupu Lounge. Perfect.

Unknown said...

Lived in Japan for 15yrs & have never seen or heard of Escolar in a sushi bar. Walu is a fish from Hawaii, USA.
Now I live in Ca USA. I came across "white tuna" for the 1st time in a Korean grocery store!!! Now a days sushi joints here in the US are largely owned by Koreans, with Korean sushi chefs,even Mexican sushi chefs!!!
So think twice next time you blame the Japanese & call them "japs"
You deserved anal leakage !!!

Unknown said...

Very interesting. Right around 2000 somewhere I was occasionally serving Escolar at my upscale restaurant. Some small portion of the staff who tasted the fish had almost immediate diarrhea. One person broke out in hives. We also had a customer who rushed to the emergency room due to what we thought was a pronounced allergic reaction to their meal (we were assuming it was the accompanying wakimi seaweed salad based on a reported grass allergy). The next morning I spoke to a customer who reported that his wife was ill with extreme stomach cramping and nausea all night while the other two people at the table who tasted her dish had a less severe reaction, and he had no reaction having not tasted it at all. I assumed that they were the victims of scromboid poisoning (a type of hystamine poisoning from elevated levels of histamines in fish, oderless and unaffected by cooking; often the result of decomposition of the fish post mortem due to long line fishing or improper post catch storage/refrigeration).

Unknown said...

Very interesting. Right around 2000 somewhere I was occasionally serving Escolar at my upscale restaurant. Some small portion of the staff who tasted the fish had almost immediate diarrhea. One person broke out in hives. We also had a customer who rushed to the emergency room due to what we thought was a pronounced allergic reaction to their meal (we were assuming it was the accompanying wakimi seaweed salad based on a reported grass allergy). The next morning I spoke to a customer who reported that his wife was ill with extreme stomach cramping and nausea all night while the other two people at the table who tasted her dish had a less severe reaction, and he had no reaction having not tasted it at all. I assumed that they were the victims of scromboid poisoning (a type of hystamine poisoning from elevated levels of histamines in fish, oderless and unaffected by cooking; often the result of decomposition of the fish post mortem due to long line fishing or improper post catch storage/refrigeration).

Anonymous said...

I found this blog after buying the mysterious escolar at my local fish market. I fried it up and ate it anyway, aware of the risks. Apparently, it doesn't affect everyone, and it was a small piece. I did react to it, though, and while my symptoms are pretty minor, they're definitely not worth it. I'll avoid escolar from now on.

Anonymous said...

Here in Indonesia, some says eating Escolar is good for your body, because it helps getting rid of your fat.
Little they know that it wasn't their body fat they were shedding...

Anonymous said...

Ate a HUGE piece of fish last night, thought it was orange roughy, nope not roughy at all, but It sure was good. Anyway, today didn't go so well and I ended up with some extra laundry to do :( I think I'm going to stay away from fish for quite awhile and I'll definitely never eat so much ever again.

steve said...

If you are in Ensenada Mexico, or any fish market in Mexico or restaurant for that matter, be wary of purchasing any Mero (black sea bass or grouper) where you can't see the whole fish. They all sell escolar filets as black sea bass or grouper. When you get the screamers you will think it must be food poisening but you can be sure it is from the fake black sea bass. Escolar or oil fish fillets have a texture similar to swordfish or certain types of shark whereas grouper and black seabass are a layered white meat that breaks off in flakes. If you know your fish you can tell immediately. If you have the restaurant bring you out the filet before its cooked you can simply touch the scholar filet and then feel the oily residue on your finger. Black sea bass and grouper will not make your finger feel like you just dipped it in lard. They will assure you it is Chilean sea bass or some other made up fish, but you will know better.

Jon said...

here in the Philippines, we call it "malaigit" a dialect for the adjective "similar to LBM". When I was high school we served this fish in a drinking spree to have some fun to those who do not know this kind of fish expecting the effect for several days. ��

Unknown said...

My turn! Lol I found this post cause I am a sushi addict. Been eating sushi for over two decades. And last night I had the sushi roll of my LIFE. So went online and was trying to figure out which was the ingredient that made my roll taste better than a $40 ribeye which I would die for. BAM this shows up. Just spent an hour reading this thread lmao I had the escolar @ 9 pm last night. This morning when I woke up early @ 5am for no reason my ass crack felt wierd, like I had used lube. Honestly didn't think anything of it. Wasn't wierd color, just thought fluke of nature or sum such. So halfway into this post took 2000 mg calcium and ate a serving of asparagus. Lmfao. it's past noon the following day only time will tell but nothing yet! The crazy thing is about 4 months ago after ordering sushi from a different restaurant I had that orange poo once. Looked at, it thought holy shit (literally) and waited to see what the next one was like. I have IBS so my shit goes wild every once in a while, never like that but I'M getting older. So ANYWAY time will tell. Everyone take care!

Sea Bass Imposter said...

Oh my goodness, I had a good laugh reading these posts. But only after recovering from consuming escolar unknowingly, last night. The frustrating part is that I ordered "sea bass" in an upscale restaurant. I knew immediately upon "getting sick" in the very early morning hours, that it was most likely escolar instead. I knew this because I'm familiar w/ the symptoms, unfortunately. Many years back I ordered some beautiful white fish sushi that the chef told me was "butter fish." Tasted like butter, looked beautiful. The next morning, I went w/ three of my girlfriends to a wilderness destination to hike for the day. OMG. We arrived at the trailhead when I got the sudden need to find a restroom. Thank you, Jeezuz, there was a port-a-potty just feet away. It saved my life, my pride and the day. Actually, my pride suffered a bit having to explain to the girlfriends why I made them wait 30 minutes for me to return. I did not share the details of my "outhouse" experience, only blaming a bout of GI upset. Thankfully, none of the girls need to use the potty after I did! I had no idea about what was going on at that time, so experienced the same fear as many of the other posters here, that surely, I was dying. I did think at the time that it had to do w/ the sushi I consumed. Luckily, big time luck, my "episode" was complete after the 30 minutes, because I was off on a 3 hour hike with the girlfriends and would have been in bad shape had there been anymore "episodes". Whoo, after reading these posts with folks who had several episodes for entire days, I think I dodged a bullet that day! As soon as I got home safely from the hike, I did some research. I didn't find your post at that time, it may have been more than 6 years ago. But I found enough on the internet to know exactly what happened to me...and that the butter fish was escolar. We went to the sushi place again at a later date, because it really is a great place, but I talked to the chef and verified that they serve escolar. My husband and I both swore off of that tasty fish for life! Or so I thought. Last night I was the victim of being served something that was not what it was marketed as. I paid $31 for "sea bass". It tasted great. Almost too good, and I think I had a subconscious suspicion. The girlfriend we were with also ordered it and I'm checking w/ her now to see how she feels today. I plan on calling the upscale restaurant chain and talking w/ the manager. I'm mostly upset at being sold an expensive type of fish that actually was not. Well, I'm upset about the time I spent in the bathroom this morning, too! Anyway, moving on! Thanks for the good laughs, especially the poster who recommended the cure of ordering a bottle of chardonnay w/ the fish as a preventive measure...with the creative use of the cork! I laughed so hard, I almost had an accident!

Unknown said...

I am going through that Oil Shit right now; two days after eating from a 5* Star Hotel in Gaborone. My worry is that; why the Hotel should be serving this ... is it taking a ride on the ignorance of the community ... Indeed there is little information out there about escolar... restaurant do not disclose escolar and its side effect...

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