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.

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