Last month at Japan’s world famous Tsukiji fish market, a Tokyo-based sushi restaurant chain owner paid 155.4 million yen, or about $1.76 million, for a 488-pound bluefin tuna, or about $3,606 per pound. Last Sunday, at Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater, N.J., I got to see firsthand what all the fuss was about without having to use my passport. The Mitsuwa supermarket and adjoining concentration of authentic Japanese food stalls all sharing a central food court gives one the impression of having flown to Tokyo’s Narita Airport, but Mitsuwa is literally 10 minutes outside of the Lincoln Tunnel. All of the stalls have glass displays of gorgeous plastic food models depicting what is available on order from the nearest noren framed (traditional Japanese fabric dividers) door or takeout window. Realistic deep-fried chicken karaage and pork-filled gyoza sat next to uni and snow crab sushi, and triangular omusubi. Never has window shopping tasted so good.
But on this day, a huge temporary stall had been erected in the center of the food court, which was surrounded by customers taking cellphone photos of the carcass of a 529-pound behemoth that had been swimming, just several day ago, in the cold waters of the Northern Atlantic after having completed its final massive journey, which began in the warmer waters near Spain.
Torpedo-like, but with a retractable blue fin, the tuna’s exposed musculature was still a bright oxygen-rich red, as pre-rigor mortis aging had taken place. Decapitated and tailless, it resembled a giant mackerel to which the bluefin tuna is a distant cousin. We were told that this tuna was some 14 years old, middle-aged and, like all of its predatory brethren, could attain speeds of upwards of 50 miles per hour. An army of fish butchers had assembled to methodically break down the mighty bluefin, first separating the top loin from the luscious underbelly then quartering it and slicing it into gigantic steaks.
A $10,000 saber-like knife was used to split the body, the chef/samurai/swordsman mounting the table in order to obtain the proper angle with which to make his surgical incisions. Spoons were then employed to scrape the meat away from the vertebrae and rib bones to be packaged as tuna tartare. The meat was then categorized into "o-toro," the fattiest most desirable cuts from the belly or the slightly less fatty "chu toro." At $69 per pound for o-toro, it was a veritable bargain, especially after adding in the cost savings of not having flown to Tokyo. The collar was auctioned off to be broiled or made into soup. Large steaks were on offer alongside smaller slices which were used as neta (topping) for nigiri sushi (hand-formed oblong sushi). Virtually nothing was wasted.
The feeding frenzy among the crowd, including yours truly, had reached fever pitch as the cashiers could not Saran Wrap the beautiful tuna loins fast enough to keep up with consumer demand. I greedily took my o-toro, some real wasabi and some soy sauce I purloined from another food stall and devoured it like a shark on the ledge of a nearby planter as no seats or tables were available. At the risk of sounding trite, the o-toro literally melted in my mouth.
Although the spectacle was more surreal than funereal, I could not help but feel somewhat remorseful about the tuna afterward. I was comforted by the great amount of reverence, admiration, and respect that was shown to the creature at the demonstration and the fact that every piece was consumed by the one predator that even the bluefin could not contend with.
Ever mindful of the depletion of the ocean and the bluefin population in particular that has been wrought by over-fishing, I thought of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Though describing a marlin, the following quote could just as easily be applied to the great bluefin tuna: "There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behavior and his great dignity."