How and When Did Tuna Become Such an Iconic Sushi Fish Neta(Ingredients)?
For Edo-Mae style sushi, "Maguro," Tuna is the king of sushi Neta (ingredients). When I say "King," I mean it from sushi chef's perspective.
I didn't know this until I became a sushi chef. A sushi bar without Maguro is like a steakhouse without steak. Tuna nigiri is the highlight of the omakase course - the main character, the hero of the movie.
No Tuna, no omakase. No hero, no story.
It was difficult for me to understand this concept at the beginning.
"Can't you just run a sushi bar without Tuna? Why do you have to have it?" I kept wondering.
I later learned that the answer lies in the history of how the Japanese came to love Tuna, especially Toro, the fatty Tuna.
Japanese did not always eat Raw Tuna, let alone cooked Tuna
These are some reasons why large Tuna consumption did not start until the mid-Edo period, 1603–1868.
Some historians say there is evidence indicating the Japanese were catching Tuna around 10000–300 BC.
But catching such large fish presented many risks.
It's heavy. Tuna can weigh as much as 180kg/400lbs. You need a bigger boat. You need more crew. You travel far to the outer ocean.
Why risk your life when you can catch smaller fish with less effort?
Even if you successfully catch Tuna, lack of refrigeration made Tuna undesirable. What's the point of catching a big fish if you cannot eat?
The name did not help Tuna's consumption either.
Japanese used to call Tuna Shibi, which had the same pronunciation as Day of the Dead. Because of this, most people considered it unlucky to eat Tuna.
Japanese preferred Tai/Sea Bream over Tuna because the word "Tai" rhymed with "celebration." Tai was smaller fish — a lot smaller, around 50～70cm (20–28 inches) in length. Easier to catch than Tuna.
New Era for Tuna and Toro: Edo Period, Tokyo
Around 1830, when Edo/Tokyo had a large catch of Tuna, which lowered its price.
Since the Tuna became so cheap, some sushi restaurants decided to try using Tuna, which caught its popularity.
In the beginning, the way they served Tuna was called "Zuke" — a soy-marinated Tuna nigiri. By marinating in soy sauce, Tuna lasted longer without refrigeration. It also brought a different flavor to Tuna.
Until then, Tuna was either grilled or cooked and was considered not tasty.
Change in Japanese Diet – more fatty food
Even though Tuna became popular as Sushi neta, the belly was discarded. Marinating Tuna belly in soy sauce didn't change its taste due to high fat content.
Toro, Tuna belly started to get popular around 1930 – 1960. It is unclear exactly why it became so popular. There are a few theories.
One: The change of the modern Japanese diet — preferring more "fat" in their food.
Two: Advancement of refrigeration technique allowed more extended storage of Tuna, especially toro.
The popularity of Toro started to catch on. The prices began to go higher Many sushi eaters began to see it as more premium sushi neta.
Japanese started to recognize Toro as the "king" of sushi neta. Sushi has become one of the leading Japanese cuisine export to the US, Europe and Asia, where it was not available until recent years.
Sushi eaters outside of Japan followed Japanese suits: Toro as the premium sushi fish.
Fishermen outside of Japan started to see more value in Tuna belly, which they used to throw away just like the Japanese fishermen some 250 years ago.
As the popularity of Sushi grew around the world, so did Toro.
Tuna auction, media coverage, and the price hike
If you like Sushi, you probably heard about Tokyo Fish Market and their annual Tuna auction. Just as Edo people used to pay no attention to Maguro, no news media reported this event until recently. Most Japanese didn't even know it existed.
Things started to change in 2001, when the Tuna from Oma was priced at JPN ¥20 million (Approx. US$ 170,000).
Japanese News media started to report this high Tuna price, mentioning the name "Oma" – a small town in Aomori most Japanese never heard of before.
Oma Tuna fishermen used longline over the troll and the gillnet fishing method. The longline caused less damage to the Tuna, but it is a more dangerous fishing method.
Media coverage on the Oma Tuna Fishermen increased. In 2007 a TV drama "Tuna" featuring a famous actor, Tetsuya Wataru was produced with US$ 10 million, funded by Oma fishery organization and the city of Oma.
Thanks to the TV show, Tuna from Oma became a brand, like Kobe Beef, which contributed to the higher price for Tuna and Toro.
The rivalry between Itamae Zushi and Sushi Zanmai
Another thing contributing to the price hike was the battle between two sushi restaurant owners; Ricki Chen of Itamae Zushi and Kiyoshi Kimura from Sushi Zanmai.
In 2008, Ricki Chen became the first non-Japanese to win the bid for the new year's Tuna auction at the price of JPN ¥6.7 million (about US$600,000). The Tuna was served at Chen's restaurant in Hong Kong.
This caught the media's attention. Chen kept winning the bid four years in a row over Kiyoshi Kimura of Sushi Zanmai.
The battle between Chen and Kimura contributed to the hike of the Tuna price every year. There was a rumor that someday, the Tuna price will go over one million dollars.
In 2013, Kimura made the international news headline for winning the Tuna auction for US$1.3 million. He is known as "Tuna King" for winning seven consecutive bids between 2012 – 2017.
Future of Tuna
Bluefin Tuna is referred to as the "Diamond of the sea" among Japanese fishermen and distributors.
Due to the popularity of Sushi around the globe, bluefin is overfished. It is listed as endangered species by such organizations as WWF.
There are, however, some sustainable Bluefin Tuna. One of the notable one is by Kindai University in Japan, a fully farm-raised Bluefin Tuna: Kindai Maguro.
Breakthrough Sushi also offers in-person sushi classes in San Francisco Bay Area as team building activities and private events.