Fishy Business

published in Wine & Dine Magazine

The day at the Tsukiji fish markets begins when seafood drifts in just before midnight. By daybreak fish from the world’s oceans would have arrived by truck, plane and ship. Tens of thousands of individual consignments are directed to the various destinations of the hangar-like market by dozens of zippy two-stroke powered trolleys resembling Star Wars droids. Occasionally, tradition endures and a wooden wheelbarrow or pushcart is drawn into operation. Pullers and pushers run frenzied from one end of the market to the other–a total of 2300 tons of highly perishable and fragile seafood needs to be in place, with not a claw, fin or tentacle out of alignment by auction time.

After all, this is serious business – seafood worth US$20 million will change hands in a matter of hours. Here, every kind of seafood can be found –salmon, live and salted; eels still wriggling; shark with fish still in their belly; crab; sea urchin and fish roe; abalone; sardines; squid of all sorts and more. You’ll see more marine animals here than in an aquarium – over 450 types. Only these are to be eaten. No surprise, since Japan consumes 1/6th of the world’s seafood.

The best time to visit Tsukiji is around 5.30 am when auctions begin in many of the 20 auction pits (visitor pass required). By then, each of the seven auction houses will have sorted, graded and readied for inspection, the commodity it specializes in.

A short taxi ride from Shinjuku and I arrive – bleary eyed, making my way past vegetable stalls and shops selling hand-made knives and cooking equipment. Right in the centre of the complex, is a wet market, with many small stalls. Here you’ll smell the sea. It’s just like standing on the edge of a cliff, with even the salt spray reaching you. Indeed, there’s fish, lots of them, in polystyrene and plastic containers, splashing about and taking what must be their last gulps of water. There are also frozen fish and octopus, packed in mounds of ice.  I stop at various stalls, curiously admiring seafood I have never seen before. Buyers are about, poking, rubbing, smelling and tasting pieces of fish, going about their business, oblivious to the many camera wielding and gawking tourists.

What I am looking for is bigger fish. So I head to the back of the markets, to a row of warehouses. Inside, the floor is shrouded in mist. In this surreal environment, you’ll see rows and rows of tuna, hundreds perhaps, paraded out on the ground. Every one is more than a metre long. Most are covered in frost, and all are missing their tails. More are being slithered across the concrete floor with steel contraptions not unlike that of Captain Hook’s.  I am here, at a bluefish tuna auction pit!

The frost is unceremoniously hosed off a row of tunas. Gumboot clad jobbers and buyers with flashlights and sashibo (steel rods), poke, jab and feel the flesh inside the sleek and shiny bodies to determine its fat content and freshness. I overhear discussions but can only make out words such as akami (lean red meat), naka (the best of the red meat), chutoro (belly area of the tuna along the side of the fish between the akami and the otoro), and kama (meat just behind the gills considered by some connoisseurs to be more delectable than toro). Deliberation is done with as much seriousness as a shopper considering a big purchase. No wonder, for each tuna can cost as much as a car. The auction begins.

Suddenly the auctioneer utters, “How much for this?” and the jobbers and buyers begin bidding with gestures – all very civilised.  Time passes in a flurry and blur.  A buyer may be from a restaurant who will then keep his favourite cuts for himself and then resell bits off to smaller sushi bars. By 7a.m., the jobbers would have taken their fish to their own stalls, sawn and carved them up for display for caterers and other purchasers to buy.

What could be fresher than sushi from the market: I head to the other end of the complex and sit down amongst the people I had just seen in action awhile ago. Like them, I order a seto or set of sushi and ponder my day ahead. How ironic; for them, the day is almost over.

Pearls of the Sea

published in Latitude Magazine

Caviar’s beginnings were humble indeed.  Centuries ago, the sturgeon roe was Russian peasant food; villagers eking out a living on the shores of the Caspian Sea unceremoniously scooped it from the fish’s belly and consumed ladles of it.

Over time caviar became a symbol of aristocracy and a delicacy reserved for tsars, but the rest of the world took to it only much later. Legend has it that in the early 18th century, Peter I The Great sent Louis XV a consignment of caviar.  The French King was so unimpressed that as soon as he tasted it, he sprayed the carpet at Versailles with it.

Fast forward to the 1920’s. ‘White’ Russian exiles, (who opposed the Bolshevik Red Army) living in Paris attempted to recreate their former tsarist lifestyle, with Champagne and all, but caviar was nowhere to be found.  Two enterprising students, Melkoum and Mouchegh Petrossian, devised a cunning scheme. They arranged for the Soviet embassy to freight in caviar, which they paid for, in francs, hard currency that the Soviets welcomed. Not long after, Paris high society began indulging in the eggs alongside the Russian émigrés. And the rest is history.

Having caviar on the table, anywhere in the world these days, heralds a distinguished moment. Of late, the amount of caviar from the Caspian Sea has diminished, due to a fall of production in the sea – mainly from over fishing and poaching.

Enter the substitutes as there are 30 species of sturgeon.  The Chinese version from farmed Kaluga sturgeon in the Amur River near Russia, is a golden coloured and nutty tasting; North America boasts eight species with the lake sturgeon producing roe somewhat similar to Sevruga caviar; and then there is host of fish eggs, peddled in supermarkets  – from the paddlefish and lumpfish to the trout ‘caviar’ and capelin roe. Whatever the claims of these upstarts, whether their eggs are an eye catching brilliant orange-red (salmon roe) or richly golden (whitefish), they are far in form and taste, from Caspian caviar, claim the purists.

The ultimate caviars are by definition – the roe of the sturgeon, from the Caspian Sea. And so, geographically, there can be only two sources– Iranian and Russian – nothing else matters despite the fact that each country will claim that their version offers the best texture and taste.

Caviar Savvy
The three original types of caviar available commercially are Beluga, Oscietre and Sevruga, named after the respective sturgeon varieties. The largest of these three is the Beluga, while the Sevruga is the smallest. Here’s the savvy.

Sevruga –  They are usually grey-black in colour, but varieties ranging in colour from yellow to grey-brown can be found. The eggs have a firm texture, and are smaller than the other two varieties. Uniquely, Sevruga is the saltiest amongst the three, but in surprising contrast, has a sweet finish. It is the least expensive grade, as the female Sevruga matures at about seven years, then it begins producing eggs. Serve Sevruga with crème fraiche on toast or incorporate with scrambled eggs. Suggested wines: An Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava or Laurent Perrier Champagne.

Oscietra –The female fish produces a wide variety of eggs and reaches maturity at the age of 12. In the early years, large eggs with mostly a dark golden shade, but can range from grey-black to deep brown are produced. Oscietra is nutty and earthy, although of course it still carries the sublimely salty, fishy taste. As the fish gets older, the roe produced is a pale amber, and in taste, is subtler. This roe is prized and should be consumed by the spoonfuls on its own. Suggested wines: A good Soave or an aged sparkling Vouvray.

Beluga – Because the sturgeons only reach maturity somewhere between 25 and 40 years of age, and they may not necessarily spawn every year, hence a huge price premium for Beluga. The eggs are large-grained, and could range in colour from a steel grey, to an almost black shade of grey. As you bite into a spoonful of Beluga, the large-grained eggs burst in an explosion of flavour in your mouth. This is the king of caviars. Served in small spoonfuls, unadorned, wines to accompany include complex Champagnes – Billecart-Salmon, Henri Giraud and Henriot.

Buying Caviar – When buying caviar, approach a reliable source. The best caviar will bear a Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) certification; beware of counterfeits, sold at a discounted price or other fish roe passed off as caviar. Cheap caviar almost always never turns out to the real thing.

The best caviars will have a ‘malossol’ tag implying it is delicately salted. Beluga is rated by zeros, with triple zero being the best whilst Ocietra/Osetra carries an A grade. Sevruga is graded one and two. Trust your taste and purchase what you like. Eggs should be whole, of the same size and colour be glistening and firm. Good caviar begins with an oceanic-like taste and finishes off nutty or fruity. Some aficionados can taste nuances of brine and copper. Caviar should never taste fishy, oily or salty. If it is, but has been served, rescue your palate and your hosts’ ego by opting for an austere wine to go with it. Pressed caviar or broken eggs is jam-like in consistency but will keep addicts with light wallets satisfied. Accompanying wine could be a sweetish German sparkling Sekt or a dry Cremant de Bourgogne.

Storage – Fresh caviar can be held unopened under refrigeration for four weeks. Pasteurized caviars will keep in the refrigerator unopened for several months. Once opened, all caviars should be consumed within two to three days.