Her posture bent over from decades of respect and her mannerisms practiced, as if her eyes were not needed. She lifted her hand slowly to balance, as she hoisted a warm steamed dumpling onto the outstretched palm. A carafe of warm green tea, complimentary, was placed next to neatly placed napkins and paper cups.
So many things go on outside view in Tokyo, yet people do not stare. The focus is on the pursuit of perfect action, the quest for excellence in all things. Tsukiji fish market is in Chūō, Tokyo (meaning Central Ward), one of the 23 special wards that still exist from the time when Tokyo was still just a city. Of course now Tokyo is a Metropolis, boasting extreme population density and a daytime population above 650,000 people.
Tokyo has been called the best food city in the world, and I found nothing to counter that claim. There are so many things to talk about in Tokyo, but the first thing I wanted to mention, was that which is almost gone. Tsukiji would be my first stop upon returning, not only to try to food, but because I fear that Bluefin tuna will be extinct in my lifetime.
The styles of cuisine are endless, and the variations within each style so well developed and nuanced. A simple take on bouillabaisse with lobster shells, meat, stock, and roe flooded the air near an entrance corner. A bit spicy, it filled the mouth with brine and warmth.
The Meiji era poet Saitō Ryokuu said that “elegance is frigid”. At the Tsukiji fish market, everywhere you look there is a cold beauty, staring right back at you with glass colored eyes. BlueFin Tuna.
Blue-Fin are the cattle of the sea, yet unlike the source of steak they are voracious carnivores of fatty vitamin-rich fish. Unlike most fish, tuna are actually warm blooded, which comes in very useful in the frigid cold sea off the coast of Okinawa, where they spawn. Bluefin swim with their mouth wide open, almost like a supercharger forcing water along their gills, and infusing their blood-rich muscles with oxygen.
We had no problem finding those small fish displayed at every corner as well, as well as nearly any type of seafood imaginable. Tuna is a foundation of Japanese Cuisine, there is no part of the fish that is wasted from it’s eggs to it’s skeleton. Their bodies are perfectly streamlined, allowing them to travel through the open water extremely fast, and consume up to 5% of their bodyweight daily. That body weight can reach up to 1,200 lbs, but rarely that large any more.
Bluefin have the sharpest vision of any fish, they watch us carve them into extinction in the most intricate shapes, separating their every muscle. To see a whole fish up close is impressive; a sleek metallic colored flesh, evolved to bolt (up to 20 mph) through the frigid ocean depths at extreme speeds. They can even detect the earth’s magnetic field through magnetite in their snout.
Bluefin are caught and auctioned almost every morning at the Tsukiji fish market, it’s been written about and filmed countless times. The actual auction is a waste of time unless you are bidding the obscene amounts required to purchase a whole fish. It starts extremely early, and is entirely in Japanese – imagine that. Heading to the market will allow you to get the retail level price.
We smartly went after the morning crowds had died down, right around lunch time when the vendors hail their patrons with large signs and pictures. Magical combinations of fish and eggs await you at every turn. It’s like Tuna Disneyland.
One of the most divine thing I have ever tasted is the fresh raw belly of these sleek apex predators. Otoro, the belly portion here is richer than I’ve tasted anywhere else, the only comparison is high grade steak – even in the top restaurants in Los Angeles and NYC I have yet to taste anything close. Three generous slices of otoro over warm rice for approximately $20.
It’s estimated BlueFin populations have fallen 96.5%, potentially beyond the point of restocking in the wild. It’s rare any of the fish even reach maturity before being captured. We did see a brief uptick in their numbers recently, but I fear it is not enough. It took more than 30 years, but in 2007 bluefin were first hatched in captivity, but there is a long way to go before production can ramp to the level of Japanese and global consumption. It likely will not be the same, and highly likely that wild bluefin will disappear.
Sushi Zanmai, which has several locations in and around the market is an affordable and easy place to dine. The skill in preparation here is only slightly above average, yet with daily access to the world’s best quality, it is catapulted to greatness.
Anyone that tells you Japan is expensive doesn’t understand the intersection of value and quality when it comes to food. The majority of the advertised dishes at most of the tiny restaurants were less than $25 USD – for better than excellent quality fish and sushi.
Walking right outside the market, there are even great dessert options in the countless varieties of dried fruit sold by the vendors just outside the main entrance.
After eating close to my bodyweight in Tuna, I pondered the irony of Tsukiji, a necropolis for one of the greatest remaining species of the ocean. Some of mankind’s earliest structures were burial grounds; Herxheim in southern Germany where over 5000 years before the common era, early humans were eating each other (particularly babies, which there is strong evidence for in the fossils). We’ve vastly upgraded the process with our warm blooded cousins of the deep.
I think, one day I will lament about the days when seafood was still wild, and I will recount my visit to Tsukiji. When I see Bluefin tuna sliced, floating on an immaculate cloud of uni, (also something I didn’t appreciate until Japan) the marbling of fat through muscle reminds me of coral reefs or the phloem of a maple leaf. It is so plain to see that all life on this planet has a common ancestor.
While it is very sad that we’re eating nearly everything to extinction, it is easy to understand why we are, because everything is delicious.