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Tsukiji: 20,000 leagues across the land

Tsukiji: 20,000 leagues across the land

Emmanuelle Jary - 2010-08-11

The world’s largest fish market is open to visitors at night, in the electric mayhem of the red tuna auction. This is the place to take the pulse of a country that has turned raw fish into a highly refined culinary art.

One of Japan’s greatest chefs, Tooru Okuda of the Kojyu restaurant in Tokyo (3 stars in the Michelin Guide), accompanied us on our visit to Tsukiji market. A real tourist attraction, the world’s largest fish and shellfish market is threatened with relocation by 2012 but, for the time being, it is still well and truly in Tokyo. So, thinking nothing of it, Tooru Okuda arranges to meet us at 3 o’clock in the morning. Not something we would normally have been too happy about, but our nights in Japan are plagued by jetlag-induced insomnia.
 
The market is open to tourists from 5 o’clock in the morning but is already in full swing two hours earlier. Every day about ten thousand wholesalers sell almost 2,000 tonnes of fish and shellfish. With horns blaring, utility vehicles dodge each other in the narrow alleys lined with fish. It is as if the contents of the whole sea are on display here in plastic or polystyrene containers. In a deafening atmosphere, the merchandise arrives alive and is put into a coma (a Japanese technique to preserve freshness), before being discussed, handled and evaluated. The large pieces of tuna are carved with great skill.
 
Tuna is big business for the Japanese and, so too, for this market: white tuna (mekajiki), red tuna weighing over a hundred kilos (hon maguro), but also mebachi maguro, kihada maguro, and meji maguro. The species are differentiated by their size and quality of fat. All are caught in Japan. According to Tooru Okuda, the best tuna comes from the north of the country. In the auction room, which is closed to the public, a striking sight awaits. We enter discreetly thanks to Okuda’s open access and, lined up on wooden pallets, hundreds of tuna are inspected for quality grading. The Japanese don’t seem too worried about ecology, emptying the sea of this fish; granted, some of the fatty parts taste incredible. The least expensive side is the one on which the animal is lying, where the flesh is slightly crushed by the weight of the body. A large tuna can weigh 225 kilos or more.
 
In Tsukiji market, the quality of the product is also in the freshness of the fish, which is often eaten raw. The market’s wholesalers remove the nerve from the animal’s head, leaving it brain dead but not physiologically dead. This ensures the flesh does not mature, the importance of which becomes clear when, at around 5 o’clock in the morning, we leave the market to go and sample the best sushi in the world. Once again, we find the whole sea on small rolls of rice. This extraordinarily fresh sushi was undoubtedly one of the best meals we had in the Land of the Rising Sun. Then, at last, daybreak arrives and we head off to bed.
 

The world’s largest fish market is open to visitors at night, in the electric mayhem of the red tuna auction. This is the place to take the pulse of a country that has turned raw fish into a highly refined culinary art.

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