Access to the Tsukiji can be complex due to the fact that many ‘sushi fans’ want to take home a memory on film, and thats’ al, they focus on. But many forget, it is not a place where picture takers are always welcome. Some vendors get angry because foreigners get too close, touch their products, even their knives and distractions are most unwelcome. A distraction can be disastrous, most places of work are very small and turning and cutting tuna takes manpower. Cutters use very sharp knives to break thought the flesh of tuna and serving the high demand of chefs in the wee-hours can be tedious and tiring.
The Tsukiji will close in less than 4 months and re-open in Toyosu an emerging area located some 15minutes from the present Tsukiji. I am expecting a shiny new facility, and I am told there are many businesses that will not move due to the high cost of entering into the new age fish facility. I was speaking with a fish vendor in Tsukiji and I asked him, “you must be excited to leave”, his reply was, “I love it here I would easily stay.”
It’s clear that many Japanese vendors would like to stay here, and I understand why. There are many Japanese who enjoy the status quo – some Japanese prefer things best untouched and are more classical than you think, despite drinking coke zero in the wee hours of the morning.
I arrived to the Tsukiji at 05h00 and spent four and a half hours in the market with two vendors; both cutters who purvey some of the finest hon maguro. One is a third generation family as he explains there are two types of tuna this time of the year, netted and long line.
Seine fishing has been used widely in the past including by stone age societies and are still very popular. I am not a fan of seine fishing because the tuna’s caught by net seems more gamey than I like. Some would argue the taste is deeper and certainly you can tell the difference. And the popularity of seine caught tuna is still a top choice for some top Japanese sushi chefs.
However there was a time when seine fishing ran into trouble which caused many seiners to cease operation and go into bankruptcy. In the late 1990’s the world market prices of skipjack dipped below US$400 per tonne for the first time since purse seining in the Pacific Islands area began.
But many industrial boats continued and countries like the Republic of Korea, Taiwan and China transship their catch onto to large carrier vessels in ports of the Pacific Island countries, while the Japanese return all catch to Japan for their domestic market.
Somehow I cannot get my arms around netting fish, and the question of quality pops into mind which makes me wonder. So can a netted tuna be as good as a long line tuna catch? The answer is difficult if you use a simple yes or no. If a fish is netted and handled correctly it can be excellent, however longline fishing is far superior if the handler is Japanese and the fish is fresh (not frozen) and domestically caught.
Now to understand seine fishing, greenpeace is not against purse-seining and that may surprise some people. Sure it’s a big industrial-looking fishing operation, involving huge nets and catching lots of fish. But that’s not always a bad thing. If we are to assume we’re still going to catch and eat fish, then purse-seining as a method is probably going to be something that continues.
Purse-seining involves setting a large circular ‘wall’ of net around fish, then ‘pursing’ the bottom together to capture them. Where purse-seining is best used is with large single-species schools of fish, that shoal tightly together. Examples like herring or mackerel spring to mind. These can be caught relatively ‘cleanly’ by purse-seining. But where purse-seining is a bad idea is when targeting fish that a) also involves the bycatch of non-target species, and b) simply can’t take the fishing pressure on their populations. And that’s where we get to tuna. At both ends of the tuna size and value scale, purse-seining is employed.
For skipjack, the smallest species, and staple of tinned tuna, purse-seining is used throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The problem here is that skipjack tuna often shoal together with young big eye or yellow fin tuna. These often end up in the nets too. As do sharks, rays, turtles, and other species of fish. Then when you add in the complicating factor of Fish Aggregation Devices (FADs) – the use of which increase the amount of by catch – then the problem gets even worse. /source greenpeace/
I have the chance to watch the long line be carted into the shop, the organization is perfect and the story begins. The hierarchy, auction, carting and then onto the cleaning these small beasts they are placed onto a table – and the performance begins.
The fish is impeccable, I am in awe, I am stunned because I have been to the market 50 times and I’ve never seen what I was watching. My closest friend (Mr.T) who I’ve known for over 30 years has never taken me “fishing around in the Tsukiji”. I’ve asked and he’s toured me but he’s not keen to mix his work as a professional outside his sushi counter. It reminds me of a documentary I watched on a well-known young actor who never has her friends on set. It all makes sense.
I am almost trampled, my basic early morning agility, I move out-of-the-way to avoid the hysteria of the market – it is hectic. It isn’t a place for amateurs; there is danger everywhere you look. A bocho that is long as a tall human, or a short bocho for trimming tuna, it is dangerous. I am watchful about each step, and I know that I cannot be too anxious or I’ll embarrass myself. There is nothing worse than getting told, move here, don’t do this or that.
I am a tuna fanatic and I am experienced as to how to move, what and where I can stand, to avid their clients who are nt impressed to see a gaijin watching like its theatre. The tension rises as some chefs start to arrive, the tuna has its moment, and it needs the right moment and time to get sold. We are talking high prices, and fish that’s just right, optimal, the process is long or short, it doesn’t mater, it’s all about the right fish getting in the right hands.
I talk with the vendor and he is inquisitive and always asks my views on tuna, but I am an amateur, so I can’t say much. The last things I want to do is make myself look foolish. I am not a pro but the vendor is busy and I am here as a semi-pro, as there aren’t many foreigners who chase raw fish as much as I do. I am dedicated to learning, seeing, tasting and analyzing fish as a voyeur.
I start to taste some tuna, thinking and talking to the professionals, while others walk in point at the belly and its done with one swift motion of the knife. The idea of taste, I speak about some well know chefs and what types of fish they buy, it’s more about what are the differences between chef’s tongues. That’s what’s important when it comes to fish the right balance in taste.
So where does tuna play a role in the experience of sushi, and it dos more than you think. My brother-in-law asks me, what about fish from Mexico, and professionals aren’t concerned only about where tuna comes from, they are concerned about what, where and how it’s handled. We cannot generalize about fish, and there are so many factors that influence taste.
Blue fin is still Poseidon’s favourite, and the international trade in fresh bluefin is only 40 years old, when methods of refrigeration and air-cargo handling became sophisticated enough that a giant bluefin could be caught or harpooned off the coast of New England on a Monday, and be auctioned fresh in Tokyo on Wednesday. Until then, bluefin were mostly a popular game fish and attracted sportsmen such as Hemingway. Bluefin was considered and are still considered in Greece a nuisance to commercial fishermen as they get tangled in their nets and yield cat food.
Think that americans did not enjoy eating oily bluefin and hogged white canned tuna used to make sandwich spread caught off the Pacific coast. I read that James Beard once wrote that tuna is the only food better canned than fresh.
Note: Foreigners and non professional are not permitted into Tsukiji unless invited, or by permit, and if you attempt to go onto the market, you can find yourself ejected. Permission is needed.