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Ming Tsai serves mislabeled fish to China’s vice president

Ming Tsai, the owner of the Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, served “Soy marinated Alaskan Butterfish” at a State Department lunch, but it was actually sablefish.
Ming Tsai, the owner of the Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, served “Soy marinated Alaskan Butterfish” at a State Department lunch, but it was actually sablefish.

Did celebrity chef Ming Tsai serve mislabeled fish to Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and no less, the vice president of the People’s Republic of China?

Tsai, well-known owner of the Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, prepared “Soy Marinated Alaskan Butterfish’’ this week in Washington, D.C., at a star-studded State Department lunch honoring Vice President Xi Jinping of China, who is expected to be that country’s next leader. It was a takeoff on the signature miso-sake Alaskan butterfish Tsai serves at his restaurant.

But as the Globe reported last fall after a five-month investigation into fish mislabeling, the silky fillet on the menu at Blue Ginger at that time was actually sablefish. There are eight other species that can be called butterfish. But sablefish is not one of them, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

As it turns out, sablefish was served at Tuesday’s luncheon at the State Department, said Alan Eisner, a spokesman for Tsai.

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“The goal was to show off American products and Alaskan butterfish is what Ming came up with. It sounded a lot better than Alaskan sablefish. But it was sablefish,’’ Eisner said.

The explanation was similar to the one that Tsai - host and executive producer of “Simply Ming,’’ an Emmy-nominated Create TV cooking show - gave last fall. At the time, he said he thought the FDA allowed sablefish to be called butterfish in Massachusetts, and explained that he used a different name for the expensive fish because it sounds better.

The butterfish details were included in “Fishy Business,’’ a two-part Globe series that was the result of an investigation into seafood misrepresentation at area restaurants and supermarkets. The newspaper hired a lab in Canada to conduct DNA testing on 183 fish samples and found that nearly half had the wrong species name. After the series was published, Tsai agreed to change the name on his menu. It now reads: “Miso-Sake Sablefish (a.k.a Butterfish).’’

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“I did not ever intentionally deceive customers,’’ Tsai said last fall. “I did make a technical mistake and now that I know, I’ll change the name.’’

In an interview last year, Tyson Fick of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute said butterfish is an unusual name for sablefish. “It’s my understanding that nobody in Alaska calls it butterfish,’’ Fick said. “They call it black cod and sablefish.’’

Nonetheless, the rest of the names on the luncheon menu appear to be uncontested, and the dessert - flourless bittersweet chocolate cake with cardamom ice cream - would probably be just as tasty by any name.

“The meal, as far as I know, was incredibly well received,’’ Eisner said.


Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jennabelson.