Slicing Sushi at the Tsukiji Fish Market
By Anthony Joh
The Tsukiji Fish Market is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Tokyo and has been covered in countless guide books, and yet the market has never been officially declared a tourist attraction. At times has been completely closed to tourists due to complaints from the vendors but today I am getting a full access tour thanks to the owners of the Tsukiji Sushi Workshop.
We met our guide and his sushi masters at 8:30 am sharp outside the fish market. Hirobumi Morita has spent over a decade working in and around the fish market. He even took some time off to travel to the Mediterranean in order to deepen his understanding of seafood cuisine. Nobuyuki Noji first started working in the restaurant business at the young age of 23 and after a decade of working at some of Tokyo’s top restaurants he moved to Tsukiji to open his very own restaurant.
Our tour starts through the bustling inner market. Our guides pointing out the different vendors and the various types of seafood on display. We learned how to choose the tastiest fish based on the color of its skin or flesh.
The market is incredibly busy in the morning with small pallet trucks zipping around to deliver their goods as chefs from restaurants all over Tokyo come in to buy their daily supplies.
Another interesting aspect of the market is how clean it is. We saw shop owners vigorously scrubbing their benches, knives, refrigerators and anything else they could to keep their work area as clean as possible.
The Tsukiji Fish Market is not an official tourist attraction and you will not find any souvenir shops here. This is a real functioning market with over 700,000 metric tons of seafood handled each year. Be aware that if you are at all squeamish, some of the methods used to prepare the fish might be disturbing but are actually the most humane way to prepare the fish.
The Japanese practice of ikejime is designed to instantly kill the fish while preserving as much flavor as possible. The chef will make a precise cut into the back of the head to instantly kill the fish and then make another cut at the base of the tail. He then will force a thin, metal wire into the nerve canal that sits above the fish’s spine, and pushed it all the way in, crushing the spinal cord.
What was explained to us is that this method will sever all the nerves to the muscles and prolong the onset of rigor mortis which helps preserve the freshness of the muscle and gives sushi its unique taste.
After we collected our catch of the day it was time to head back to the kitchen to learn how to prepare the fish. Noji-san took charge and first showed us how he expertly fillet the fish he had bought earlier. He demonstrated the different methods that are used by chefs around the world and also how he quickly removes the bones with a pair of tweezers.
He then brought out the tuna to demonstrate how to precisely cut the fish to maximize the flavor. Watching Noji-san work effortlessly it was easy to forget that there is a fine art in getting the cut just right. This was clearly demonstrated when our group had a go at cutting our own slice of sashimi.
One tip that Noji-san pointed out is that many inexperienced chefs will try to saw their way through the tuna, while master sushi chefs will make one clean cut.
Everyone had a chance to practice cutting the tuna and it was great fun to see who could get the cut right and win the approval of the master chef.
After we cut the tuna it was time to learn how to prepare the sushi. We would be preparing nigiri sushi which is when the fish is placed on top of a small amount of rice. Noji-san showed us how he uses both hands to prepare the sushi in no time at all. We on the other hand had some difficulty!
This exercise proved to be harder than cutting the tuna. The trick is to get just the right amount of rice so that you can form it in to the correct shape for the neta or topping to be placed on.
It was interesting to learn that creating the perfect rice shape is more about how you mold the rice rather than squeezing it into shape. We all had a chance to practice making our nigiri sushi with Noji-san and Morita-san expertly offering their guidance along the way.
I think we all had a new found appreciation of how for how difficult it can be to create the perfect nigiri sushi.
After all the cutting and molding it was time for the final test, which was tasting. Everyone grabbed their sushi geta, loaded with their very own creations and retired to the table to enjoy our hand prepared meal.
I don’t know if it’s because we prepared the sushi ourselves or it was the selection of ingredients that Morita-san chose but the sushi was truly delicious. It was a welcome reward to end our tour of the Tsukiji Fish Market.
If you are interested in taking your own tour, you can book your tour through the Tsukiji Sushi Workshop at Tsukiji Fish Market. The tour is offered in both English and Japanese. For anyone who is interested in getting up early to watch the fish auction, they also offer the Tuna Auction Tour that starts at 3:30 am.