Time to taste Japan's terrific tuna

Time to taste Japan's terrific tuna

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Okinawa

If you go to a sushi restaurant in Okinawa, tuna will be one of the most popular orders. If you attend a wedding or other type of celebration, tuna is likely to be part of the menu. And if you eat dinner at the home of a Okinawan friend, don’t be surprised if one the dishes served contains tuna.

Tuna is easy to come by in Japan and is something most foreigners want to try when they visit. But many are surprised that high-quality tuna can be just as expensive as world-renown Kobe Beef, caviar or foie gras.

During 2013’s year-opening auction at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, a 504 -pound Bluefin tuna caught in the Oma Strait (Aomori Prefecture) was bought for 155,400,000 yen ($15,400,000) by a sushi restaurant chain owner. It was the most ever paid for a single tuna.

While a quality bluefin can cost an obscene amount of money, tuna can be bought for a decent price at a local fish market or grocery store. And like in the States, canned tuna (often called “sea chicken” in Japan) is inexpensive and available at local supermarkets.

In 2011, Japan hauled in 205,000 tons of tuna from off the coast of Japan. But that wasn’t enough, so another 185,000 tons was imported from overseas during the same year.

But why is tuna so popular? According to famed chef Yoshio Yamada, it’s all about its versatility.

Tuna can be served like a steak, or raw (sashimi) or be used in a countless number of dishes, including desserts, Yamada said.

“There are a lot of species of tuna … bluefin, yellowfin and albacore. If you use all the parts of these different species, you can create virtually any type of dish,” he said, explaining that tuna can be cooked just like beef, pork or chicken. “Instead of kalbiyaki (grilled sliced rib-meat) for instance, you can use the fatty back part of tuna instead of rib-meat, and it is much tastier and healthier than beef.”

For those of you who watch your diet and workout, “tuna is high protein, low calorie, and extremely healthy,” Yamada said.

So what’s the best tuna to eat?

“Bigeye and yellowfin are the two most popular tunas caught off the coasts of Japan,” said tuna expert Yoshimi Suenaga of Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology.  “These days, albacore is also getting more popular as its quality has improved and is usually reasonably priced.”

What should I buy?
Many in the military community enjoy shopping off base, including at fish markets and grocery stores. The next time you find yourself eyeing blocks of tuna and contemplating what to purchase, there are a few things to keep in mind.

“If you are going to buy both the akami (red flesh part) and toro (fatty flesh part) of the same tuna, just focus on the red flesh part and choose one with fine and delicate texture,” said Fumihiko Sorimachi, manager of the tuna shop Ocean Grow in Misaki on mainland Japan. “Because if its akami is good, its toro is also good.”

If you’re in the market for bluefin, “Choose the thick black-reddish one,” he added.

Yamada has a simple trick he uses to judge the quality of fish on display. “Press the tuna meat lightly over its wrapping.  If the meat is too tender and water is oozing out when you press down, never buy that block, as its quality is not good,” he cautioned. “Remember, good tuna has strong resilience.”

If you’re looking for some fresh sashimi, Yamada recommends “choosing a block where tendons run straight in the same direction with similar spacing between each.  That shows the block is from the middle part of tuna - the best part for sashimi.” 

Dealing with frozen tuna
If you’ve been to a big fish market, you’ve probably noticed that a majority of the monster tuna are frozen stiff. This is because after they are hauled aboard, there are immediately put into “super freezers” that flash freeze the tuna with a temperature around –70 degrees Fahrenheit. The frozen tuna is packed with fresh taste and flavor. The frozen fish are then cut into blocks.

According to Sorimachi, you can preserve a frozen block of tuna in your refrigerator for two weeks and still be able to eat it raw, but he cautioned against it. “You cannot avoid decreasing the quality of tuna in your freezer,” he said, explaining that your home refrigerator can’t come close to -70 degrees. .  “So, basically, it is recommended to defrost and eat it as soon as you buy it at market.”

When defrosting the block of tuna, do not use a microwave. Rather, put the frozen fish directly into warm salt water for a couple of minutes until about 30 percent of the block is defrosted.  Then, wipe the block with a clean dish towel.  Then wring out the towel tightly and wrap the block with it.  Put the wrapped tuna in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.

Although the block can be defrosted within 20-30 minutes, let it stand longer if you can.

“Since fresh tuna has a kind of fishy smell and rough taste, you had better let it stand for a while in the refrigerator, the taste and smell will mellow and get better,” Sorimachi said.

Hidden kingdom of tuna

You may be thinking that Okinawa is an island paradise where only tropical fish are caught.  But this is far from the fact. The waters off Okinawa are actually a treasure trove of tuna.

In 2012, of the 15,295 tons of fish hauled in off the island, 57 percent of that was tuna, according to data from Okinawa Prefecture.

“Okinawans can boast about the freshness of our local tuna,” said Takashi Akamine of the of Okinawa Prefecture Fishery Division.

“Different from the mainland, we don’t bring frozen tuna onto Okinawa,” he said.  “Almost all locally landed tuna on Okinawa are sold fresh.”

“There are great fishing grounds right off Okinawa. Another plus is that Okinawa’s water territory is very wide, and it contains good fishing grounds for tuna,” Akamine said, adding that while off mainland Japan you can catch fresh local tuna only in the winter, off Okinawa you can catch it throughout the year. 

Bluefin tuna are caught in the spring, bigeye and yellowfin from summer to winter and albacore from autumn to spring.  “So, we can keep eating fresh tuna throughout the year,” Akamine said.

According to Akamine, Okinawans eat tuna mainly as sashimi (sliced raw fish).  “Okinawans call fish shops sashimi-ya (raw fish shop) instead of sakana-ya (fish shop), which shows how much we are familiar with raw fish in Okinawa,” he said.

Among various tuna species that are landed in Okinawa waters, the most popular is albacore.  “Okinawans, in general, don’t care for fatty fish meat, so we prefer akami to toro, and prefer albacore’s plain and light tastes to other more fatty tunas,” Akamine said.

Actually, Okinawan tuna might be less fatty than that those caught off the mainland due to the climate and water temperature differences.  In fact, oma tuna, famed for its fatty meat when caught during winter time in the Tsugaru Strait, lose some of that fat when they go down south in spring.  

Okinawans are known for their tuna tempura. “We call it tempura, but it is not the same as that of mainland, as the coating is much thicker,” Akamine said, explaining they cook up tuna tempura on special occasions like New Year’s.  “It looks like a kind of hot dog or snack-like food.”

Okinawa Prefecture has registered local tuna with a trademark of “Okinawa Churaumi Maguro,” and they are trying to promote it as one of Okinawan’s main products, according to Akamine.

Why not sample the fresh local tuna at a sashimi-ya. It’s likely never been frozen.

Tomari-iyumachi – Okinawa Fishery Cooperative Association Market

Open 6 a.m.-6 p.m.
Location: 1-1-18 Minatomachi, Naha City, Okinawa Prefecture
URL: ja-jp.facebook.com/churaumimaguro
For more information, call 098-862-0968.

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