“He’s very good looking,” whispered our guide, Mr. Ishitobi. “But don’t say anything. If he hears you, he might be distracted.”
It was a little after 7 AM and we were at Tsukiji fish market, watching Tsutomu Suzuki wielding a thin, razor-sharp knife that looked to be three feet long.
No, we definitely did not want to distract him.
And yes, the 40-something Mr Suzuki was an attractive man, despite blood-spattered rubber boots and a tad of early morning puffiness about the eyes. One of the wholesale fish market’s top tuna purveyors, he had been at work for hours, first buying gorgeously fresh tuna at auction and then meticulously slicing the flesh into sculpted pieces that would be sent to some of Tokyo’s most popular sushi restaurants.
He does this five days a week, month after month, year after year. It’s how he got to be an expert at his trade.
We watched as he helped a young shop attendant dismember the center section of a fresh mebachi, or big eye tuna, carefully splitting the fish down the middle with an oroshi hocho, a long flexible knife resembling a rapier, and cutting the flesh, layer by layer, down to the boney skeleton. The two men slipped a board under each slab of fish, which was immediately put into a refrigerated case.
In the world of tuna, big eyes tend to be small fry. When whole, this one had likely weighed about 55 kilos. A market sales sheet provided by Mr. Ishitobi indicated that the day before, Japanese big eye were auctioned for prices ranging from 1,000 to 3,500 yen per kilo—about 10 to 35 dollars.
Blue fin tuna, which can weigh as much as 450 kilos, tend to sell at significantly higher prices. The wild ones that come from Canada’s Atlantic waters are especially desirable. On the price sheet, successful bids for Canadian blue fin ranged from 3,000 to 5,500 yen per kilo—roughly 30 to 55 dollars.
There was a moment of quiet drama as Mr. Suzuki measured the piece to the exact centimeter where he would make the cut. He paused briefly— as if to gather himself—and then quickly and forcefully sliced down through the flesh with a sharp blade. Afterwards he wiped the cut surfaces with wet paper towels to keep bacteria from growing.
We saw a visible difference not only in the size of the fish, but in the color of the flesh, when Mr. Suzuki began to slice big, meaty hunks of blue fin into smaller pieces. Unlike the paler, rosy-hued big eye, the flesh of the blue fin is a deeper, darker red, with an orange tinge in the fatty parts. It looks rich and very, very succulent.
Although I’ve never thought of raw fish as being especially beautiful, both kinds of tuna were so visibly fresh—indeed, the flesh appeared to glow from within—that I began to understand why everyone wants to eat breakfast sushi at Tsukiji.
But that would come later.
Founded in 1603, Tsukiji was originally located in the Nihonbashi district. After an earthquake in 1923, the market moved to its current location between the Sumida River and the Ginza. It will move again, possibly in 2015, to Toyosu, a controversial decision possibly based on the fact that the down and dirty market occupies a patch of prime real estate.
Today, there are actually two markets. The jonai, or inner wholesale market, where Mr. Suzuki’s enterprise is located, sprawls over 50 acres of warehouse buildings and narrow streets clogged with speeding delivery vehicles. Five auction houses are located here, which sell an average of 150 tons of tuna daily. As well, there are a multitude of individual stalls—estimates range widely from 900 to 1,600.
In the outer market or jogai, which is open to the public, anyone can shop for fish, as well as for fruits and vegetables, pickles, spices, tea, dried seaweed and cookware. There are around 400 vendors and quite a few restaurants.
Here you can find almost any culinary treasure that your heart desires.
Small wooden boxes of matsutake mushrooms? Bien sur! They’re in season right now, and practically every restaurant in Tokyo is serving them in one form or another.
The website, Savory Japan, explains that this stout, odd-looking mushroom is prized for its “superb, earthy and intense flavor.” The matsutake grows only in the wild, usually around beech trees. The Japanese variety can sell for as much as $50 an ounce—but at 2,000 yen ($20) per kilo, it’s likely that these mushrooms were imported from Morocco or Turkey.
How about wasabi, the fiery Japanese condiment that makes your nose burn and eyes water? Instead of the fake reconstituted green powder that many restaurants serve, you can buy the real thing at Tsukiji, where you’ll see the knobbly green-tinged stems floating in plastic containers filled with fresh water.
Despite its appearance, wasabi, also incorrectly known as Japanese horseradish, is not a root but a thick stem. It is a member of the brassica family and, as Wikipedia notes, when grated, its chemical constituents release “vapors that stimulate the nasal passages more than the tongue.” It is an ideal complement to raw fish and a dab of the grated stem almost always accompanies a serving of sushi or sashimi.
Incidentally, although you can buy metal wasabi graters, the traditional tool is much more beautiful and quite functional. Made of wood, one side is covered with real sharkskin; when a piece of fresh wasabi is rubbed over the rough surface, the stem is shredded to a fine paste.
B and I were really shopping for delicacies that we could bring home. Like hoji-cha, the delicious roasted green tea to which I became addicted from my very first cup, sipped while lazing in bed, gazing at the early morning views of Tokyo.
Liz Clayton, writing about hoji-cha for Serious Eats, says this style of tea developed in Kyoto during the 1920’s when merchants began roasting the leaves over charcoal, “possibly as a clever economical way to make use of stems or even stalks left over as the advent of mechanical harvesting began to scatter debris among harvested leaves.” These days, she says, “many producers of hojicha use a spinning drum roasting method, as is commonplace in the roasting of coffee.”
At Jugetsu-do, the tea section of Maruyama-nori, a venerable dried seaweed shop founded in 1845, I found two types of hoji-cha. One slender bag was filled with golden-brown needle-like stems, while a “premium” package, labeled Hida no homare, held shriveled dark green tea leaves mixed with a few yellowish stems. These leaves, plucked from plants growing near the Ibi river in the Japanese Alps, are said to be roasted very slowly over a low fire, thus retaining a trace of their original color.
Economical or no, the flavor of both these brewed teas is fantastic. The first has a deliciously rich, toasted flavor that seems just right for sipping during chilly weather; the second is more delicate in taste, but with the same roasted overtones.
Incidentally, Jugetsu-do literally translates as “the place from where one looks at the moon”—a lovely sentiment that captures the changing seasons, and the way that Japanese cuisine honors foods of the moment.
As I was leaving the shop, the saleswoman pressed a container of dried seaweed into my hands. “A present,” she smiled, reminding me that nori is Maruyama’s other key product. I’m glad she did, since the crisp, shimmering green rectangles were flavored, quite unexpectedly, with extra virgin olive oil and sel de Guerande. They were absolutely delicious.
It was no surprise to learn that Maruyama-nori also has a chic tea room and boutique on Rue de Seine in Paris. Tea can also be purchased on line in the US, although at this time, hoji-cha is only available in tea bags.
The roguish white haired spice merchant at Karaimonoya Takanashi let loose an excited volley of words. Mr. Ishitobi kindly translated: The owner wanted me to know that when a Michelin inspector recently sampled the shop’s seven-spice shichimi, “he said it was much better” than the blend sold by a famous competitor in the Asakusa district.
Our guide paused for a beat, rolled his eyes, and muttered, “No, no! Don’t believe it.”
Still I loved visiting this crazy shop. You can’t miss the huge red chili pepper hanging in the entryway, and the place is crammed with hot sauces, curry powders and bags of single spices like black peppercorns, coriander seeds and these large scrolls of Indonesian cassia bark.
Typically shichimi is sprinkled over soba and udon noodles to add color and spark. Karaimonoya Takanashi’s blend consists of ground red pepper, dried tangerine skin, dried “sea green vegetable,” hemp seed, poppy seed, sansho (Japanese prickly ash, similar to the Sichuan peppercorn) and sesame seed. Like any spice mixture, the flavor varies depending upon the merchant’s “proprietary” formula and the quality of the ingredients.
I later discovered that the big bag of shichimi I bought was sadly one-dimensional. The occasional sesame seed lent it a slightly nutty taste, but an overabundance of red pepper only blistered my tongue. A smaller packet in a red envelope was of higher quality: the flavor was more complex, still quite hot, but lively with citrus and sweet roasted pepper.
Tsukiji is also a great place to pick up Japanese cookware as long as you’re prepared to carry it with you. If you’re in the market for a knife, of course, this isn’t much of a problem.
At Aritsugu, the Tsukiji branch of a highly regarded Kyoto knife shop, mobs of American chefs, most with long-suffering spouses in tow, were avidly checking out the hundreds of blades arrayed in gleaming, sharp-pointed rows.
One of the alluring characteristics of hand-forged Japanese knives is that some are made in the same ateliers that once fashioned swords for samurai warriors. The single-edged carbon steel blades are thin and exceedingly sharp, which makes them ideal for preserving the integrity of fish as well as seasonal fruits and vegetables when they are sliced.
Aritsugu has other tempting kitchen tools. I especially loved the claw-like fish scalers and hefty stainless tweezers for pulling pesky bones out of fish fillets.
As you’ll eventually see, we waited until Kyoto to buy a knife. The bonus: Exquisite copper cookware we didn’t see at Tsukiji.
By now our tummies were rumbling.
We skipped the long lines waiting to get into Sushi Dai, a “must do” for most visitors to Tsukiji, and followed Mr. Ishitobi to Sushi Tomi, a small restaurant on a quiet side street that just happened to be owned by Mr. Suzuki, the tuna purveyor we had visited earlier.
The chef, Mr. Seseko, made a place for us at the 8-seat counter …
…and proceeded to serve us the most exquisite sashimi I have ever eaten. It was tuna, of course, but it was scraped from the bones of the very same big eye tuna we had seen butchered just an hour before in Mr. Suzuki’s stall.
Set before us in a pale green bowl, the rosy pink “scraps” looked like delicate flower petals–and the tuna had a purity and freshness of flavor unlike any other I’ve experienced in many years of eating raw fish.
There’s a proper way to eat such glorious sashimi, of course. Using chopsticks, the first few mouthfuls should be nibbled plain in order to experience the unadorned flavor of the fish. Next, try the tuna with the tiniest bit of fiery wasabi, a perfect complement to the delicate but deeply flavorful flesh. Dip the last mouthfuls into a little soy sauce.
“Never overfill your soy sauce bowl,” advised Mr. Ishitobi.
We lingered there for nearly an hour, sampling different types of tuna sushi, including lightly grilled otoro, or fatty tuna, and learning about old-style Osaka sushi that was pressed in a wooden box and preserved in persimmon leaves.
Then we plunged back into the flow, dodging the zooming tricycles and their half-demented drivers as we briefly returned to the wholesale market before it closed at 10 AM. We saw lots of fish, most of it still looking for buyers…
There was boiled octopus, which B loves for its chewy texture….
Buckets of big-eyed redfish…
And an evil puffer fish. Said to be the world’s second most poisonous vertebrate (top honors go to the “golden poison frog”), this is the notorious fugu which can be deadly if not properly sliced, especially when it’s eaten raw.
Daredevils crave the thrill that comes from going right to the edge: the mild intoxication, light-headedness, and tingling of the lips that comes from ingesting just a bit of the neurotoxin believed to lurk in the fish’s digestive tract. One false slip of the knife, however, and the “victim” falls off the cliff, experiencing rapid heart rate, plunging blood pressure and finally total respiratory paralysis.
The very prospect was enough to send me back to the hotel for a restorative massage.
Toru Ishitobi, our English-speaking guide, provides informative private tours of Tsukiji fish market. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Yukari Sakamoto’s Food Sake Tokyo, which is both a blog and a guidebook, offers a detailed introduction to Tsukiji and its many culinary treasures. If you’re going to Tokyo, be sure to take the English-language version with you.