Tag Archives: Tuna

Slurpy Noodles and Hamburger Sushi

Food in Japan is a curious beast. It is at times a gloriously wonderful thing, beautifully, even artfully constructed from an array of ingredients while remaining remarkably simple. At other times it’s a cup noodle. But at least the Japanese have a clear idea of what Japanese cuisine is. From snack to fine dining there runs a thread that identifies the creation as Japanese through and through.

But that’s a lie, if I’m honest.  Generally it is far easier to identify something as being part of Japanese cuisine than to do the same with British food. It’s there in British food, I just think that it has become much more internationalized as immigration and empire has completely altered the make up of British cuisine. Japan, a considerably more homogenous nation than the UK perhaps has a more singular culinary identity, but it is by no means Japanese to the bone.

Japanese cuisine, like every other nation in the world is open to the effects of globalization. Their attempt at an Italian style pizza can be found in every supermarket and many restaurants. In most cases it doesn’t compare to the original, or in my mind the American variant but they love it nonetheless. I used to work in an Italian restaurant, scrubbing baked on lasagna off of pans, pizza dough from plastic trays and dodging flying frying pans flung haphazardly towards the sink with a trajectory that were I not quick on my feet would have taken them straight through the back of my head. Health and safety, which is to say, my health and safety were not always cared for, but one thing they made sure was right was the pizza oven; four hundred degrees plus, the required temperature for a true Italian pizza. Here in Japan, the oven sits at 220 degrees. It’s a somewhat soggier creation.

I recently discovered from an article by Paul Greenburg, that even tuna of all things is not in the least bit traditional fare in Japan. The fat tooth required to crave and devour such a fatty, muscular variety of fish flesh was acquired with the introduction of beef into the Japanese diet only some fifty or so years ago. So quickly have they cultivated this taste that the Bluefin Tuna is all but buggered, avoiding extinction wise. As such, even something as Japanese as sushi and sashimi is not spared from the whim and caprice of the global market place. Topping that rectangle of rice with a wedge of tuna flesh simply wouldn’t have occurred to the Japanese a hundred years ago, it would have been too heavy a dish. Now in Kappa Sushi they put a hamburger on top along with a healthy dollop of mayonnaise.

Then there is ramen. The slurpy noodle.  An incredibly popular dish in Japan that finds its origins in China. Ramen joints are a late night thing for me. Steaming bowls of noodles, meat, a few bits of veg and half an egg floating in a brothy mix while delicious at the right time (approximately just under one too many beers into a night out) hold slightly less appeal to me come the sober light of day. Though I’ll admit that this is in part a weather thing. In the stifling humidity of the Japanese summer a heavy dish like ramen doesn’t appeal all that much. But come winter, being huddled over the bowl will take on a whole new dimension of culinary pleasure. There is an additional benefit to this too. While at times I feel self conscious in Japan eating something as delicate as sushi while simultaneously trying to shove it in my mouth in one mouthful as the Japanese do, slurping noodles, face barely above the bowl while sat at a counter is about as relaxed and informal as Japan gets. It’s a welcome break.

I’ve had some weird and wonderful eating experiences in Japan. I’ve eaten intestines hot off the electrical griddle at a house warming party in Shizuoka city, Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki (see Hiroshima post for description of the wonderful dish) off of the teppan in a restaurant that was little more than an old ladies living room  and shabu shabu (cooking thinly sliced meat and vegetable in a boiling pan of water then dipping them in sauce) at a friend’s dining room table while sipping sake with her father.

One event that tends to come to mind though is the time I ate dinner at a small izakaya (bar/restaurant) in Shibuya, Tokyo. Having already eaten my friend and I tried to turn down the chef’s initial effort but to no avail. It was delicious, it was beautiful and beyond it being green and containing some tuna I couldn’t tell you what it was. I tried to tell the man I was full when the second dish arrived. I’m glad he didn’t believe me because it was tataki, slightly seared slices of tuna, and it is incredible. My mouth waters at the very thought of it. Finally he asked me whether I like tako (octopus). I nodded. This was a mistake. He reached into a blue plastic bag behind the counter and proceeded to pull out a live baby octopus that immediately wrapped its tentacles around his arm. Frantically I told him not to start cutting and blow torching the poor thing up in front of me. Not that I have a problem with eating meat in any way, I just don’t see why an animal should die when someone isn’t going to eat it. Fortunately, the chef put the poor little blighter back in his blue bag and bucket, slowly pulling the little suckers from his arm.

I had a slice of him later. Not bad. A little chewy if you must know.

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The Tuna Taboo: Who ate all the tuna?

Sushi. Sashimi. Both delicious, both abundantly available in supermarkets and restaurants across Japan and of such a quality and price as to ensure that the next time I take a seat at a Yo!Sushi in Britain I know I will be left poverty stricken and disappointed. Prepared perfectly, there are few things that compare in my mind to maguro sashimi (raw tuna).

It elicits a similar response in all my students. Tuna seems to be universally adored in Japan. Indeed so loved, that there appears to be something of a disconnect between the brain and the taste buds.

After months of reading about the rapidly declining tuna population and the failed attempt to prohibit international trade of bluefin tuna from the Atlantic and Mediterranean I decided, perhaps a tad foolishly to inquire what my students thought of the suggested reductions in both catch sizes and trade. Presented to them in a lesson on ‘giving opinions’ as, ‘I think that Japan should fish less tuna.’ Then prompted to agree or disagree. Intended as a sly way of provoking some heated discussion it merely revealed how conflicted they felt about the issue as the clear answer I received was conveyed through a shuffling in their seats and an evident squirm.

Every bloody one of them. Some with a knowing laugh, some with a smile, some with a little look of shame and some with downright defiance. Even when they acknowledged that stocks were rapidly declining they simple could not stand the thought of going without it. To put it in context, it’s equivalent to asking a British person to reduce their intake of bacon sandwiches. Even if a heart attack were imminent and a single two pigs left to breed, they’d still think long and hard about their options; before thinking, sod it I won’t be around to miss them anyway.

A BBC article last month noted that the Japanese consume around 80% of the bluefin tuna caught in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. In addition to this, the Japanese Times noted that the Japanese account for around 70% of Pacific tuna caught. More alarming than that figure however is that the average size of the catch is decreasing as over fishing is leading to a younger and younger catch. The danger of this is that if caught before age three the tuna will not have produced any eggs and so the population decline will only accelerate. In fact, the Japan Times article also noted that the average weight of the tuna caught had declined from around 100 to 150kg in the eighties, to around 50kg now.

Obviously this is an unsustainable level of individual indulgence, which all modern diets that contain a daily intake of meat are. Yet, what my students tended to focus on was not that this was not caused by Japanese consumption but rather by Chinese consumption. My students suggested that the increasing popularity of sushi in China means that they consume almost as much raw fish as the Japanese do. Evidently not tuna if the latter statistics are anything to go by and even if China did consume as much, a nation of 1.3billion people consuming as much fish as a country of 120million is more of a damning stat against the Japanese.

One of my students suggested that just as Inuits in Alaska receive special dispensation to hunt whales for food as a particular allowance to their culture, so should the Japanese receive such an allowance for tuna. The problem is Japan is not a small community hunting a sustainable number of an animal. Indeed on a side note they flaunt such bans on hunting regularly with ‘scientific’ catches of whales that inevitably end up on people’s plates. Yet, such a cultural argument isn’t even applicable in this case. Masayuki Komatsu, formerly a researcher at Japan’s Fisheries Agency, referenced in a great article in the Financial Times, noted that the year round consumption of tuna is in reality far from the traditional diet of the Japanese and that eating fish as they come into season and as such are found in greater abundance is, ‘the true dietary culture of the Japanese people’.

Yet, for all the damning figures any change in the approach to tuna fishing and consumption in Japan will have to come from Japan and not international rapprochement. The thing is, we’re simply not seen as ‘getting’ how the Japanese feel about tuna. If the regular closing of the Tokyo ,Tsukiji fish market auction room, due to foreigners touching the incredibly expensive fish, is anything to go by, they might be right.