“Everything changes. The only thing that remains immovable across the centuries and fixes the character of an individual or people is cooking” – Victor Hugo
The Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu declared, at the beginning of the 17th century, that the capital, and its Emperor, must move from ancient Kyoto eastward. A new mighty city would be constructed, the marvel of its age. Its name would be Edo, ‘the Estuary’.
The site chosen for the new development was low-lying marshland where the fertile Kanto plain met a huge, fish-filled bay. Its construction was a gigantic task. Hills were leveled, and land reclaimed from the sea. Tens of thousands of craftsmen, laborers and artisans were shipped in to realize Tokugawa’s vision. As the city took shape, there came thousands more, to feed the workers, to trade, to barter, to serve Emperor and Shogun, and soon a vast metropolis grew out of the swamp.
By 1721 its inhabitants had reached the million mark. Edo was, at the time, the largest city in the world. The Edokko, literally ‘the Children of Edo’, were a new breed, a far cry from the culture-obsessed nobility and temple elite of Kyoto. Their tastes were simple and forthright. Their language was unusually direct, laced with much honne true feeling, a far cry from the nuanced Kyoto dialect that hides as much as it reveals.
These proto-Tokyoites even developed their own food culture, based on the strong, deep-flavored dashi stock derived from katsuobushi dried bonito fish and konbu seaweed blended with shoyu soy sauce, the taste that still characterizes the city’s cuisine today.
If we imagine that Edo is as much a state of mind as a historical location, its apotheosis must surely be found in Tsukiji Market. Its official name is Tsukiji Shijo Ichiba, and it boggles the mind. Tsukiji feeds 12 million hungry Tokyoites every day. Each morning from dawn it delivers around 903,000 tons of produce, 213,200 tons of which is seafood. That alone is worth a staggering $17,979,000.
One sun-drenched morning in mid-November, 2016, myself and three other culinary adventurers gathered at the Tsukiji Cooking School to learn a little more about some of the tastes, flavors, ingredients, and cooking techniques that
have remained essentially and deliciously unchanged for the past four centuries.
The Tsukiji Cooking School couldn’t be better located, just a chopstick’s throw from the great, bustling maelstrom that is the Tsukiji Wholesale Market, and directly facing Namiyoke Jinja, the Shinto shrine dedicated to prosperity, the kitchen, and protection from the fury of the waves. The Shrine is the regular place of worship for the legions of rubber-boot clad market workers who pass by every day. I too stop by to pay my respects, and pick up an omamori, the amulet that will protect my kitchen from earthquake or conflagration. But will it save me from culinary mishap? There’s only one way to find out.
My fellow culinary explorers for the day are a cheerful bunch, all keen to learn more about Japanese cuisine and give it a hands-on go in the kitchen. Liran is from Israel, Chaiyan from Thailand, and Soshi from Japan.
It is a little unusual to have a solely male group explains the young woman who is to be our Tsukiji guide for the first half of the morning, the vivacious Misao Sugibayashi, adding that it’s more often a 50-50 split.
Going to markets is the best way to understand the soul of a place – Alain Ducasse
After a brief orientation in the school’s cooking studio, we head out into the warren of shops that make up Tsukiji ‘external market’, the retailing quarter. By 10am the area is already heaving with shoppers, tourists, tradesmen, film crews, and night workers enjoying the post-shift breakfast of champions, sushi and sake.
Misao Sugibayashi is expert at the complex business of explaining the finer points of Japanese food and food culture in English. She breezes through descriptions of various ingredients as we walk from stall to stall. “That’s sugar they are adding to the dashimaki egg roll, not salt, as the Tokyo style is sweet unlike the savory version they eat in Western, Japan”, she explains. At one point she stops to point out some dried fish in a plastic bag. “These are the dried fins of the deadly poisonous fugu puffer fish, which you add to hot sake. It’s called hire-zake and it’s especially good in winter”. “This is bodara dried cod which is especially served as part of our New Years celebrations”. At every step our education, and our appetites, grow.
We drop in at Akiyama Shoten, the ‘legendary katsuobushi dealer’ of Tsukiji, where they don’t mind as we poke around the machines that are crushing saba dried mackerel, and the owner gives us a brief history lesson.
Dried fish is a big deal at Tsukiji, as it is integral to the stock that gives so much of Japanese cuisine its base flavor, and none more so than katsuobushi, smoke-dried skipjack tuna. Its use in cooking is mentioned in the Kojiki ‘Record of Ancient Matters’, which means that the Japanese have had a penchant for the fish since at least the early 8th Century! The current use of katsuo skipjack boiled, dried, smoked and then mildly fermented with the mold Aspergillus glaucus is, she explains, an Edo period innovation.
Across the crowded street we drop into the renowned knife maker Azuma Minamoto no Masahisa. Founded in 1872, the store was once run by craftsmen who made the deadly Japanese katana swords used by the warring Genji clan in their epic feud with the Heike. History tells us that the Masahisa-wielding Genji won, and the store has since thrived in more peaceful times by crafting exquisite kitchen knives.
We marvel at the massive, deadly looking takobiki, literally the ‘octopus slicer’, a beautiful wooden-handled knife that the market’s tuna specialists use to cut up the valuable skipjack tuna with surgical precision. We also marvel at their prices. Masahisa’s premium knives retail in the thousands of dollars, though their ‘everyday use’ models are certainly affordable, and no less effective than the deadly swords of yore.
Sugibayashi-san leads us out into the warren of crowded shops and stalls, where traders bawl their wares, and offer up
endless shishoku, the ‘tasting samples’ that make every trip to Tsukiji a gourmet delight. Within a few dozen yards we taste nori seaweed broth, Korean kimchee, smoky Japanese bancha tea, and my favorite, the Edo specialty, kawahagi no tsukudani, small leatherjacket fish, simmered in mirin, sake and soy sauce. I buy some to take home as a gift for family. Liran can’t resist the sweet beans “They’ll go great with beer”, he says with a smile, and the stallholder nods her approval.
I am completely enthralled when we stop by a kanbutsuya-san, the dried goods merchant, who seems to stock every dried fish known to mankind. I purchase roasted flying fish from Nagasaki Prefecture, known in the local dialect as yakiago, a key ingredient if you want to create a dashi stock that possesses a deep and slightly smoky flavor profile.
Slowly we begin to head back towards the cooking school, past the extremely popular ramen shop, Inoue, where customers wait in line before slurping on the delicious noodles in their characteristic Tokyo-style soy sauce broth. We pass other vendors selling onigiri rice balls, sushi, and that other Tsukiji specialty, dashimaki egg rolls. I could stay here all day but we must head back to our classroom for there’s cooking to be done.
Photos © John F. Ashburne.