Glutton Abroad: Tsukiji Slam


Uni don, topped with 5 kinds of Japanese sea urchin

My first concert was the Ramones in Cleveland. I was 16 years old and I went with my friends Tanya, Jen, and Jen’s dad, who was not a Ramones fan. Tanya wore an old prom dress ironically. I, having never been asked to a dance, wore a black miniskirt and a camo t-shirt from Kmart. Since this was our first concert, Tanya and I tried to fight our way to the front of the stage in a vain attempt to catch Joey Ramone’s eye, only to be thwarted by a mosh pit that formed an impenetrable barrier to our groupie aspirations. I mention this because the Cleveland mosh pit was nothing in comparison to the throng awaiting us at Tsukiji market on the day before New Year’s Eve.

Tsukiji market was supposed to have left us by now, but hasn’t, because its new home is not quite ready. I also imagine the original architects of the scheme have, in a Brexit-like fit of remorse, lost enthusiasm for the move. In any case, Tsukiji is with us for a little while longer, a fact that both Japanese and tourist gourmets sought to take advantage of in the last gasp of 2016.

Have you ever been propelled forward without any help from your arms or legs? This was the feeling that day, like a salmon rushing inexorably upstream. Have you ever been hit on the back by an old lady wielding an umbrella? I can now say I have, twice. Old Japanese ladies, freed from the societal constraints of having to make nice for 60+ years, like nothing better than to aggressively tap on the small of your back with their umbrella handle when they feel you aren’t moving as briskly as you should. So why put yourself through this? The answer is obvious.


Sea urchin buffet, walkway-side

If you have the fortitude and patience to stick out the career mosh-pitters and Japanese grannies, a feast awaits you anywhere you choose to walk. We started our breakfast with a couple of rice bowls at a spot tucked into the second floor off the walkway — a spot just like many others peppering Tsukiji that offer a choice between three types of bluefin tuna or five kinds of domestic uni.

Indeed, uni has become kind of a big thing: next to the kanimiso (crab innards) stand, another vendor grilling fist-sized meaty scallops topped with dollops of the stuff, rendering the chewiness of the scallops almost negligible. Yet another, making up for its dearth of sea urchin by serving up freshly shucked Japanese oysters the length of one’s hand, with nothing to season them but hope and greed. More uni, simply sliced open and served on ice with a spoon. Somewhat improbably, soft wah-wah mochi (cloud-like rice cakes) dusted with powdered sugar, stuffed with cream and topped with a single giant white strawberry. And always a place set aside to eat all these things, because walking while eating in Japan is so gauche.

But if you hate the state fair-ness of it all, there is also the actual, bona fide sushi bar. Like Bangkok and its wok cooks, every neighborhood in Japan has one: the eatery that considers itself a step above the rest, with a chef that rivals Kyubey’s. You seat yourself in front of the chef and your banana leaf, take what they offer to give you, dampen any expectations of American-style spicy tuna rolls, and for God’s sake, don’t ask for salmon (unless they are these gorgeous almost-eggs):


A morsel of almost-ikura, on a bed of sushi rice

Sushi is supposed to be the main event here, but a lot of times, it feels almost like an afterthought, like the rice at the end of a meal in Shanghai. The real soldiers that fight your battle against hunger for you are the appetizers: usually sashimi and then a parade of grilled or fried whatsits and whatnots, whatever is in season, whatever will impress. This is how I manage to encounter something new on every trip: one year, live baby fish, in season for only two weeks out of the year as the snows from the Japanese Alps thaw. Two years ago, I had cod sperm sacs grilled on a slab of Himalayan sea salt, an experience I repeated this time with my daughter:


There were more oysters, fresh, and a steamed kinki (orange roughy) in a Chinese-style sauce, but the most memorable thing for me was the sea cucumber — the meat of which was sliced and served in a ponzu sauce (anything in ponzu is delicious), the guts of which were dropped into very hot sake and drunken like Jagermeister shots at a frat party. This was a personal first.


Sea cucumber in ponzu

This is all heavenly, of course, unless you don’t like sushi. If you are my 6-year-old son, you don’t like it very much at all.




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