Good 'ol EST jetlag made snapping up in bed at an ungodly wee hour relatively easy--not that it would have been hard anyway, since Soft-Spoken Feisty Lady and I were about to embark on one of my long-coveted foodie dreams. We strapped on knee-high combat boots and wellies respectively, and padded out into a barely stirring Tokyo.
Some foodies dream of El Bulli and The French Laundry, of vintage wines and caviar, of green-chile cheeseburger trails, cross-country pie conquests, and sniffing out the most authentic Maine lobster roll. And while I'm game for any of the above, I wouldn't trade any of them for the 2 mornings that I had at the Tsukiji Fish Market.
Cremebruleed, a dearly trusted foodie who I'd not been in touch with for YEARS, had just moved back to Tokyo, and was all too happy to meet us for our first tryst into the edible aquatic wonderland. It was her birthday, after all--what better birthday breakfast than the freshest sushi in the world?
Even though it was early, cold and rainy, we 3 were in great spirits, and Cremebruleed laughed aloud as I danced in little circle of fishy anticipation. Without ado, she yanked us into the bustling, living hive of commerce.
As with much of Tokyo, my noggin was flatly unprepared for the intensity and scale of Tsukiji. The infamous international tuna auction has been closed to tourists, so we were making a beeline to the heart of the market (rows and rows of seafood and Japanese longshoremen), and working our way to the outer rings (produce markets, pickle stands, kitchen hardware stores, street foods, and minuscule restaurants favored by the longshoremen once they were done with work).
Basically, if you needed live cuttlefish, a sharkskin wasabi grater, a fresh root of wasabi to go with it, and a giant bowl of spaghetti with fresh Hokkaido crabs, this little city within a city is where you'd go to get it all.
BTW, some haters would scowl at the closing of certain areas of the markets to tourists, but let me tell ya: The market-proper is a full-powered, dangerous place, and if you don't have your wits about you, you'll probably be mowed down by one of a thousand forklifts pinging in a million directions at worst, or catch a face-full of fishy hosewater at best.
NYer walking/dodging/perrying skills definitely helped us from dying or stopping vital business, and even we got annoyed at the congestion-causing telephoto-lensed momos wandering haplessly into certain disaster.
Cremebruleed led our little duckling line through the damp, endless rows of piscine jewels and treasures--crabs of every imaginable size, shape and feistyness:
Group fish! (Group o groupers.)
But you're here for the food, and so were we. By 9 AM, we'd worked up a hearty appetite sidestepping splatter and gawking at swimmy critters, so Cremebruleed inched us toward the outer ring of the market. She strolled down a row of tiny sushi places, past all the tourists and nationals waiting in hour-long lines at Daiwa and Sushi Dai, and stopped at the last sliding glass door.
The sushi master greeted us warmly as we inched our way into the clean, lilliputian space; bags went in a rack directly over our heads, bottoms on stools, backs against the wall, knees under the sushi bar. Scale: Subway car, if that.
With a hot towel and a quick flip of the picture-oriented menu, the 3 of us each chose the 14-piece, 1 roll omakase (3,700 yen, I think...definitely under 4,000, or $40 USD), in which we would choose the last two pieces of nigiri. SSFL and I were grinning and bobbing like kids on Christmas, and Cremebruleed was smiling like...well, a lady in-the-know at a fab birthday breakfast.
Each tuna cut was rich, fatty, and distinct; the grouper was meaty and almost creamy, and the snapper sparklingly saline; all were so clean and fresh that you could practically hear their offers for three wishes melting in the slightly warm rice.
I didn't fully realize where I was in the world until the moment that 1st piece--maguro--broke apart on my tongue. It was the reverse of Proust's madeleines, the distillation of the immediate and fleeting, a pulse that slows and gives one rare focus--this tuna, on this birthday morning, could not have happened anywhere as it has happened here.
It was about now that the lovely man handed us bowls of the best miso soup I've ever had. Maybe it was just nice to be sipping something savory and steaming on a cold day. Or maybe it was because it was stare-back soup.
But seriously, the amaebi (deep sea shrimp) heads impart a subtle sweetness and tomalley oomph that ups the unami ante to near-infinity. Cremebruleed translated that we could have as much soup as we wanted, but we practiced restraint and saved room for the arriving feast.
I've always been a fan of raw scallops, and this beauty was like sea-candy. The fluke was a surprisingly welcome stripe of firm, oceany flesh that helped to counterbalance its voluptuous mollusk companion.
Next up--mackerel (aji, I think):
I'm not sure if these two were different cuts from the same mackerel, or if they were two different kinds of mackerel, but aji is an unsung sushi pick in the States, and we are the poorer for it. They were as meaty and full as tuna, but with a oilier punch that was tempered with grated ginger and scallion. If tuna is beef, then mackerel is lamb; gamier, at once leaner and fattier, and totally delicious.
A long-time fave, amaebi
(deep sea shrimp) ballet-slipper tails being reunited with their head-soup:
They're so teeny that it's two tails to one bed of rice, tender and even sweeter than the scallops.
Uni (sea urchin, AKA funky cheese of the sea) is easily one of my top 10 foods of all time:
Now here was one that was new to me and SSFL-- nama shirasu (raw whitebait). We angled our heads and giggled at the 'lil peepers.
1) Because of the stare-back factor.
2) Because of the slippery, distinct-small-separate fish texture.
The sushi master prompted us not to use shoyu for this one, as he'd sauced and topped them with ginger and scallions.
I know this'll seem like a cop-out, but they tasted...like the ocean. Like seawater with a metallic tang, the way you'd get with some oysters. For those hippies out there, it's doesn't get more sustainable than whitebait. So suck it up, stare back and eat; 'twas tasty!
Not new, but luscious:
Anago (conger eel): Thin, warm, lightly grilled; mouth-melting, familiar and starling (like much of this meal!). Like the lighter, sexier cousin of the stuff we get at home. In a slip.
We ate a tuna roll. You don't need to see that. But it meant that it was time to choose our last 2 pieces. We scanned the counter like kittens at a fishbowl. SFFL and I went with something we'd seen at the market and was curious about--whole baby squid:
...and I also got ikura (salmon roe), another old favorite. The squidlets were served with a dallop of white miso, and tasted reminiscent of the whitebait--a lil minerally, briny, the sweetness of the squid mingling with that of the miso.
Nice, but I'd have to give the round to the ikura, which ate like good caviar--every pearl distinct, plump, yielding the fat of salmon-to-be. Amazing.
Last one, promise. SSFL and Cremebruleed spied something unfamiliar in the case--something white and tubular. The lovely man was quick to take out the plate and show us: 'Twas tako (octopus) legs, with the pigment and suckers removed. Both ladies opted to try it as their last pieces:
It was raining, cold, and not even noon as we gave our profuse thanks to the sushi master and tumbled back into the market.
I have (and will sorrowfully continue to) pay twice as much for sushi half this good, in fancypants places that should kiss this modest man's feet. But all of New York can do nothing but poorly mimic this experience: Sitting in the fish market, shoulder to shoulder with likewise lucky girls, slowly chewing sushi as if for the first time.
It's hard not to feel incredibly grateful. Thank you, Cremebruleed, for leading us here; thank you, SSFL, for spurring this amazing trip.
Again, sorry, no idea of the name, but I marked its whereabouts on the eats map in yellow.
So much more to eat! Stay tuned for yet MORE Tsukiji, and Tokyo at large; pardon the delays. I'm still FN full.
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