Tsukiji - Kitchen of the Times

Tuna, the fish that became a world delicacy - Prologue

The times have met the people’s desire to eat fish raw

In any situation, a red figure provides relief. If it is not there, we feel as if a hole has been made. Tuna is a star actor on the dining table stage. Its presence is especially conspicuous among fish. Its presence is different from that of beef, which competes with tuna for the status of delicacy.

First of all, the tuna’s presence stands out in sushi. “Nigirizushi” (hand-pressed sushi) cannot exist without tuna, irrespective of whether it is offered in the high-grade restaurants in Ginza or it is sold in supermarkets in the suburbs. Bite-sized tuna is described in menus pasted on the walls of “izakaya” pubs. One or two pieces of tuna are also included in sashimi (thinly sliced raw fish) offered in inns at “onsen” hot spring resorts in mountainous areas. Anytime and anywhere, tuna has met the gushing desire of Japanese to eat fish raw, and fishing boats have gathered tuna from adjacent seas and distant oceans.

The Tsukiji market has controlled the move. Its annual trading amount of tuna stood at 62 billion yen in 2013. Five wholesale companies practice “seri” auctions of tuna. Besides, 30 percent of 650 intermediate wholesalers specialize in tuna. One family has traded tuna since the Edo Period (1603-1867). Outside the market, management of marine resources has become a global-scale challenge. What fish should be traded in a public market? The role is being questioned.

Tuna 18.166 billion yen
billion yen
Frozen tuna 43.849 billion yen
Frozen tuna
billion yen

Trading conducted in the Tsukiji market in 2013

Raw tuna await auction at the Tsukiji market

The large bodies of tuna are suitable for swimming in open oceans at high speeds and to distant areas. Their characteristics of being full of blood and having high body temperatures mean that they have high capabilities as “athletes.” However, the characteristics also lead to difficult problems of being easily damaged and suffering serious deterioration in taste.

People say, “In the old days, tuna were lower-ranked fish,” or “Toro (belly parts) that have much fat were hated.” I think that our preference has changed to one that favors strong tastes, but the quality of tuna that arrive at our dining tables has improved. The lower-ranked fish has been nurtured to a high-grade fish, and “toro” have become what people want to eat. Those changes are mainly attributable to the evolution of fishing and distribution that seeks freshness. For example, it was found that the bright red color of tuna can be kept if it is frozen and preserved at 60 degrees below zero. What the finding has changed is explored at a base of ocean fishing.

“Washoku” (Japanese dishes) and “gyoshoku” (fish-eating) that grew in Japan are loved by many people. In what ways do we want to deal with tuna from now on? There is no other fish that matches so well with soy sauce and rice. We, the people of Japan, should cherish tuna. (Mitsuko Nagasawa)