Climbing the stairs to exit the Higashi-ginza subway station, I was vaguely reminded of NY, emerging to the more pleasant scents of the surface, the smell of specialty food shops. But I was looking for a particular smell- of the ocean, as it climbed into the air from the scaled and shelled offerings of Tsukiji Fish Market.
Tsukiji is the site of Japan’s most famed tuna auction- and the largest such market in the world. The auction takes place in the dark of the morning, opening around 3AM. The conditions of my stay in Japan this time around will likely never allow me to catch it but that didn’t stop me from exploring the market that surrounds the tuna and other fishy favs.
The market was abuzz-
shuffling and stammering feet, heads on the swivel, an excited murmur. I would later read, in Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain’s enthusiastic account of freshness, quality, and quantity, exceeding that of New York City’s Fulton Street.
There were sea urchins, egg sacs, fish from all over the world. Giant squid as long as an arm and baby squid the size of a thumbnail shared space with whitebait, smelt, what looked like worms, slugs, snails, crabs, mussels, shrimp and everything else that grew, swam, skittered, clawed, crawled, snaked or clung near the ocean floor.
As I read, I couldn’t help but smile thankful for someone else who just gets it. Beyond the fishmongers and all the other food- ramen, umeboshi (pickled plum), nuts and dried fruit, green tea- there were glistening blades and cookware. Strangely there was also a taxidermy shop.
I made laps around the market to make sure I didn’t miss anything, wondering if I’d brought enough cash. I wished to take at least one fish home, as Tony had bagged his inspiration and headed to his restaurant, but my journey was much too long. I would be spending the day in Tokyo, culminating the night at atelier Morimoto XEX (post to come). Instead I lived in the moment, eating of the Tsukiji’s bounty in the here-and-now.
One of Japan’s many preparations of mochi. A plump and chewy, almost dumpling like creation, covered in corn or rice starch, with a fresh strawberry piercing upward from its exposed sweet filled center. They’re usually filled with anko, the infamous adzuki bean paste- that stuff is ubiquitous; but the ones I encountered at the market were also filled with matcha, strawberry yogurt, and custard fillings. My favorite was the custard. Decadent, sweet, fruity, fresh.
Uni Steamed Buns
I love uni! Or sea urchin, the sweet pulp of the ocean, flush with the flavors of fresh corn and cucumber with the mouthfeel of (dare I say) butta! Having first felt it in the prep kitchen of Jose Andres’ Minibar when Jorge Hernandez was chef. The steamed bun, black with charcoal, wasn’t my favorite. The hot uni had a more intense– funk? I imagine it had been sitting warm for a minute. But I’ve seen it served hot before! There’s nothing like the first time.
And then there was whitebait! And ice cream! And whitebait ice cream! Nellz, my fellow foodophile had stopped to look, with puckered lips and squinted eyes, questioning the possibility of anyone ever eating the small fish- in her eyes- merely flakes of flesh with eyes. The vendor encouraged her in his rehearsed English, “Buy! Buy!”
“Just looking!”, she said.
He shewed us away. She stood there asking,
“But what is it?”
He sucked his teeth in disbelief at her reluctance and opened a pack to offer her a taste. She refused; I accepted. They were chewy, a bit salty and sweet, and of course mildly fishy. As we continued, we would see a number of other small and dried -some fresh- sea creatures.
Eventually we came to an ice cream stand. I didn’t really care for ice cream, having already passed a number of ice cream carts. Been there. Done that. But as we looked more closely, there was whale and Nellz’s new favorite- whitebait ice cream!. There was also the more commonplace vanilla, chocolate, peach, mango, and the seasonal sakura, and the regional sake and matcha. But because of Nellz’s upturned nose, I had to have the whitebait. (I was also curious about what made the whale ice cream. Chocolate? Fudge? Caramel? Nuts? Turns out its just whale, which they also offered as fried nuggets. I bought a cup. Taste like Popeye’s dark meat. Okay maybe a bit chewy, perhaps like beef fat or cartilage. Not bad.) But the whitebait wasn’t bad at all. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed. After the first few licks, the allure had melted away. I noticed the feel of the fish swimming in my cone, but all I really tasted was the vanilla ice cream, subtly salty with the sprinkles of the ocean.
Before leaving, we made sure to have sushi, and chawanmushi– a hot seafood custard that kept me guessing. One thing’s for sure: Never have I experienced such maritime grandeur. But I would have to save some room for XEX.