Since October 2014 I have reviewed television programs for Japan International Broadcasting (JIBTV). The content of this post is the sole property of JIBTV and may not be reproduced in any way without consent. Posted with permission of JIBTV.
I grew up with a mother who disliked most meat but fish especially. Seafood was not something found on the dinner table. However, my grandfather was an avid fisherman and enjoyed taking his grandchildren fishing. This amounted to dangling a willow branch with a hook, line, bobber and sinker into the local creek. Fresh fish was the trout we caught which was thrown into a feed sack, gutted back at the house, and fried in butter by an unhappy mother.
In spite of my mother’s aversion I always loved seafood. And, in my twenties I bravely tried raw fish in a reputable Japanese-Canadian restaurant for the first time. Not knowing how to eat it, I looked at the dollop of green stuff perched on a carrot slice cut like a flower.
Wondering what kind of fish that might be, I thought I’d start with that. After the wasabi-induced fireworks in my head wore off, I gamely went on to eat the plate of sashimi and discovered I enjoyed it.
When I settled in to watch JIBTV’s Japanese Cuisine: This is Seafood; I wondered how complicated fresh fish could be. I soon discovered the simple answer to that. Very. It is not enough to pull fish from the waters surrounding the Japanese archipelago, serve it the same day and call it fresh. Oh no. There’s so much more to it than that.
That Japan is surrounded by an environment which produces high-quality seafood in abundance is merely the starting point. But a vital part of the superb end product is the long line of people linking the finest sashimi served in a Michelin-starred restaurant or a local market to the fishermen who hauled it out of the water.
Every person whether it’s a handler, processor, driver or wholesaler is committed to consistently delivering the best. Often this means whole communities, as well as families or individuals with a multi-generational history in the business tapping into vast expertise that is quite likely bred into their DNA.
The wholesalers are the intermediaries who oversee quality control and get the product to their specialty markets. Their customers rely on their expert eye (mekiki) to deliver the best value and quality for the best price.
The handlers, experienced lifetime masters bring in the catch, bleed each fish and sever the nerves (ikejime) to delay the onset of rigor mortis and preserve the best flavour. They also oversee proper refrigeration and moisture control.
In cases where yellow-tail fish is farmed as in Azuma-cho, cooperatives work to raise, harvest, process and ship thousands of tons to market every year. Every step—disease control, treatment, feed development—is monitored and recorded according to the Aquaculture Management Manual. This ensures uniform quality and traceability.
Interestingly, live fish are shipped in containers specially designed to reduce thrashing and lactic acid build up which negatively affects the taste. Other fish are quickly processed, packed and iced for delivery to Tokyo’s Tsukiji wholesale market and overseas.
Customers know that hygiene and food safety standards meet USFDA regulations. Even the labels on the packages change colour in warning if the proper temperature of the fish has been compromised during shipping. There is nothing which has been overlooked when it comes to preserving the freshness and taste of fish.
Like anything else in Japan, it’s clear that preserving the freshness of its seafood is not only a science and a craft but also an art.