Japanese restaurants are well known for their use of expensive, high-quality ingredients. When the Japanese decide upon a night of fine dining, their food culture demands high quality, high-cost foods. In this new series by Eat Pro Japan, we are looking at some of the most expensive ingredients Japan has ever seen, starting with a multi-million-dollar tuna!
The Million Dollar Price Tag of Bluefin Tuna
The Tsukiji market, once the largest fish market in the world, was known for its expensive fish auctions, with some fish even selling for $58,000 USD. On January 5, 2020, a bluefin tuna weighing 275 kgs (608 lbs) was sold at Tsukiji market in Tokyo for ¥193.2 million (almost $1.8 million USD). While Japanese tuna can usually vary in price between $60 to $260 (USD) per kilogram ($27 to $90 per pound), this tuna was valued at $5200 (USD) per kilogram ($2350 per pound). The buyer was one Kiyoshi Kimura, the self-proclaimed “Tuna King” of Japan, who will be serving the fish in his Sushi Zanmai restaurants. Kimura is certainly no stranger to expensive fish. In 2019, Kimura wrote a ¥333.6 million check ($3.1 million USD) for a 277 kg (612 lbs) tuna. That is almost $8700 (USD) per kilogram ($4000 per pound).
There are a whole host of reasons tuna can get that expensive. The canned tuna many of us may be used to is made from albacore, which are small, grow fast, and abundant in the ocean. The bluefin tuna prized in Japan, are much larger in comparison and have a distinct marbling in their meat, as well as an iconic symphony of flavors when aged properly. The scarcity of large pacific bluefin tuna also plays a role in their steep price, as the fish is officially listed as an endangered species. As the number of tuna catches drop, the prices also rise due to scarcity. Prices were said to have climbed 40% to account for low catch rates and, of course, incredibly expensive tuna prices award status on the buyer, a symbol of power to people like the Tuna King. A high-stakes auction with a lucrative haul also gets the media’s attention, even outside Japan, turning even more heads towards the chefs and business leaders who can secure one of the prized tunas.
The History of Bluefin Tuna in Japan
Bluefin tuna, known as hon-maguro or ‘true tuna’, is prized today, but was originally considered a low-class meal, like lobsters in the United States. Before the invention of refrigeration, fish was kept alive, if possible, to ensure freshness. Tuna was a difficult fish to eat safely as tuna has a high body temperature and warm flesh spoils easily. Once cut into pieces of meat, the flesh of the tuna would rapidly deteriorate, with the fatty parts going bad before the lean parts. The delicate process to keep tuna fresh was considered not worth the hassle and tuna meat gained a reputation as being fit only for low class people and cats.
There may have also been a social reason for the general disregard of tuna, outside of just the impractical nature of keeping the meat fresh. Tuna was originally processed by burying it underground for four days to ferment the meat. This earned it the name shibi, meaning “four days”. However, the word shibi could also be understood as “the day of death”. In the Edo period, people, but especially the powerful samurai class, took double meanings like this very seriously, so it became known as an unlucky fish.
By the 1840s, tuna was being sold in lower class markets. In these markets, tuna was found to last longer and taste better if marinated in salty soy sauce or sugary mirin, which both acted as preservatives. Leaner cuts of tuna started to grow in popularity as people could now store the meat for longer periods of time. Eventually, when refrigeration became more commonplace, fatty pieces of tuna could be stored and saved as well. Tuna became more widely accepted after WWII as Japan began to shift towards a more Western style of diet. Now, fatty pieces of tuna are some of the most expensive pieces of fish you can get due to their taste and richness. Catching tuna from the wild and eating it fresh also allow the tuna’s flavor to shine through long before the fat goes bad.
The Best Tuna Sushi Experience
The luxurious bluefin tuna meat is divided into three types when a chef prepares it. Akami are dark cuts high in protein and low in fat, O-Toro cuts are lighter cuts marbled with a high fat content and Chu-Toro cuts sit in the middle with a moderate amount of fats and protein. Different types of cuts are used for different types of dishes.
But the most popular dish remains the ever-loved sushi, fresh fish typically served over sticky rice. Each piece of sushi is made to be the perfect bite. When you begin to eat sushi in Japan, know that it can be eaten with chopsticks or with your hands. Adding a small amount of wasabi to a piece of sushi and then dipping it in soy sauce can help bring out the flavors. The gari (pickled ginger) accompanying many sushi plates acts as a good palate cleanser with every few bites.
Next time you dine out in Japan, make sure to look out for restaurants serving the famous bluefin tuna Japan prizes. Once you take a bite, you will prize the difference it makes yourself.
Note: Tsukiji’s fish auctions ended on October 6th, 2018, with the closure of the wholesale market of the Tsukiji Market. The outer Tsukiji market is still in operation, but the old fish market now operates out of the Toyosu Market.