As the leader of our firm’s food and beverage practice, I never take a day off from my passion for this industry.
I recently returned from a two week vacation in Japan and had the opportunity to visit the famous Tsukiji fish market. A must see! Why? The Tsukiji fish market is the largest fish market in the world and accounts for 90 percent of all seafood that passes through Tokyo and a third of the seafood that passes through Japan. The seafood arrives daily from 60 different countries: crab from Alaska and Russia, frozen torpedo-like tuna from Spain and Croatia, sea urchin from Oregon and Australia and anchovies from Peru. The market opened in 1935, covers approximately 56 acres and contains 1,200 fish merchant stalls that sell more than 480 kinds of seafood. These include eel, octopus, barracuda, puffer fish, surf clam, conger eel, lobster, squid, shrimp, sea bream, salmon, mackerel and of course Bluefin tuna. Are you overwhelmed yet? I was.
But it was the tuna auction that I came to watch.
After waking up at 3:45 AM and traveling to the market by 4:30 AM, we were given a tour of the inside of the market, including the fresh and frozen tuna warehouses. About 3,000 frozen BlueFin tuna are sold every day, with some fetching prices of $10,000 or more.
The fish are numbered and displayed on the floor of a vast tuna shed. Before the auction, the bidders cut small pieces of dark red meat from the fish and examine it for color, texture and fat and oil content. They make notes on scraps of paper, and peer at the cut-off tail end with flashlights. I asked specifically what the brokers look for when determining quality of the tuna, but I was told it was a trade secret. I did find out that oily fish are worth more than dry ones. Cuts from the stomach are examined for marbling and fat. The more marbling and fat, the more valuable the fish. The fish are numbered, and during the auction bidders used hand gestures to make their bids. The auctioneers recognize the bids with sounds that resemble barks. In addition, a cowbell rang, and the auctioneer launched into the rhythmic chanting that marks this ritual. He moved slowly through the rooms flanked by several men with notepads, as the buyers hovered near their choices and made finger signals. The tuna were being sold in groups of six or seven at a time.
Competition meets collaboration
Even though many people are in competition with one another, the atmosphere is very cordial, and there are lots of smiles. Buyers and sellers have known each other for years if not decades. They bargain hard but also help each other out. Buyers sometimes buy fish they cannot sell to help sellers on a slow day. Sellers, in turn, sometimes give away good fish for free or sell it below cost to reciprocate. I was told a market legend about a well-known fish broker who would enter the tuna bidding but never with the intention to purchase the fish. His whole intention was to raise the excitement of the bidding and to bid when he felt the bids were too low. This one tuna broker was so skilled, he was never caught red- handed and he always got out of the bidding war before the prices were at the highest.
Sustainability and impact on the sea
I recently published a whitepaper on the impact of sustainability in our food and beverage industry. With that in mind, I asked our auction guide whether he has seen changes in the quantity and quality of fish sold over the years. He mentioned that a combination of global warming and overfishing has reduced the amount of tuna caught and brought into the market, as well as reduced the quality of tuna that is sold on a daily basis. Nevertheless, it amazed me that with the enormous size of the rooms, all of the tuna on the ground were then sold and cut for that very day’s delivery.
If you intend to visit the historic Tsukiji fish market and the auction at its present location, you will need to do it in the very near future. There currently are plans in place to move the market from its central location to the site of a former gas plant after a series of delays over concerns about toxic contamination. The city’s governor has been satisfied that the new location will be safe from contamination. The present location, near the upscale Ginza shopping district, is earmarked for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The government had initially planned to sell all or part of the site, but has since said it would be redeveloped as a tourist area.
I’m lucky enough to mix my day job in our food and beverage practice with my personal passion for all things edible. With that, every vacation can become a “busman’s holiday” – a chance to explore the unique food trends and history wherever I go, and combine what I do for a living with what I do for fun. Another chance to #BeMore. So yes, even on vacation, I’m thinking of food.