On February 7th, 2015 I had uni sushi for breakfast for the first time in my life. From left to right: Santa Barbara uni → Hokkaido Akkeshi uni → Hokkaido Funka San uni.
Several weeks ago, I wrote about my terrible experiences at Tsukiji and how I vowed never, ever to go back there again. Boy am I eating my own words.
I don’t know how or why or if some fish fairy possessed me while I was asleep, but for some reason I was wide awake at 6:30 am and couldn’t fall back asleep. So I crawled out of bed and randomly decided to go to Tsukiji Fish Market. (The market is so convenient, it’s only 20 minutes with no train transfers from where I live. I can roll out of bed, eat and come home with near zero effort.)
Tsukiji was already jam packed at 7:30 am. The stores were open for business. Locals were hauling plastic shopping bags stuffed to the brim with fish, meats and vegetables. Tourists were spilled onto the streets from the sidewalks slurping on soup and ramen. Adults and kids, Japanese and foreign, were inhaling skewers of grilled fish, chicken and shrimp (the big, expensive kind of shrimp). Store keepers were outside of their shops, cat calling their items of the day into the crowds to lure customers into their stores.
Bouncing through store after store, scouring the items packed on the shelves and boxes, I asked every shop keeper about the items I found I had never seen before. How do I cook with this? What is this used for? What does this taste like? Where is this from? What is the best pairing?
I ducked in and out of the alleyways that run through the busy streets and hung back inconspicuously to watch the kitchen staff cook food for the store fronts. (I’m not sure if the alleys are open to the public but I went down them anyway. If you go down them too make sure to stay out of people’s ways — there are lots of workers shuttling piles of boxes and crates on trolleys.)
I stood in awe, mesmerized by the knife man sharpening knives at Aritsugu, the most famous knife store in Tsukiji (and perhaps Japan). Aritsugu has been in the knife business since the 1500s, originally crafting swords for samurais then pivoting to cutlery when swords were prohibited. There were so many things I wanted to know, wanted to ask the man but thought best I educate myself on Japanese knives before opening my mouth, so I observed. For 30-40 minutes. We started small talking. He was really nice.
And he wasn’t the only one. Surprisingly everyone was delighted I was so curious and asking questions. They were all super, duper, extremely helpful, so much so, I couldn’t stop looking and learning, talking and wandering.
Around 9 am, I stumbled onto a 10 seater bar, an annex, of one of the most loved sushi restaurants in Tsukiji by the locals: Tsukiji Itadori (築地虎杖). Unlike the main branches, this hidden cubby hole only serves uni sea urchin. I looked at the menu and saw there was only uni, I was about to find somewhere else to eat. But the itamae-san sushi chef told me to come in, sit sit, with such soft kind eyes and an irresistible cherubic smile, I was charmed. Even if I wasn’t sure if I could stomach uni at 9 am, I couldn’t help it. I took a seat.
There were three people sitting on my left, a couple on my right and three kids in their 20’s against the far wall. I couldn’t believe they were all there to eat uni at 9am. I mean, I love uni but it’s luxuriously rich and filling… am I going to be able to finish one? Wait, it’s bad manners to only order one order of something… especially since it’s my first time there… oh god, I’m going to have to order two… Then the server up sold me. I ended up ordering three orders. How in the world was I going to eat three pieces? There is no way I can leave a crumb uneaten… there were all these thoughts swirling through my head. But I was immediately put to ease by the itamae-san, while I asked all my questions. Where is the uni from? What is the difference between the two Hokkaido uni? What is purple uni? What sets uni apart?
The itamae-san was kind, patient and answered all my questions so excitedly, the other guests chimed in with their questions. There was a moment of bonding over uni. At 9am on a Saturday morning.
We were served hot green tea, then drinkable dashi with genmai, these itty crunchy circles of roasted brown rice that pop in your mouth bursting with flavor, floating on top of the rich broth with a touch of some kind of seasoning on the bottom the cup. We sipped the hot tea and took in the scent of the dashi with the roasted rice, as we waited for this one man to prepare our orders.
I was the last to order, but it was okay. I was pre-occupied with the conversations and everyone was engaged. Conversations with other patrons and even the chefs are a rarity in Tokyo these days, even in Shitamachi. (Shitamachi specifies an area of Japan and in ancient times, was where samurais and merchants resided — basically a blue collar area. In modern times, parts of the area are still outdated and the remnants of the customs and cultures of old Japan can still be seen, felt and experienced. Sigh. (That’s a happy sigh, in case you’re wondering.))
When my order arrived, I immediately asked: What is the best way to eat this? The itamae-san’s face brightened and enthusiastically asked if I would like to eat my uni with salt instead of soy sauce. Ummm yes please. He whipped out his salts and started teaching us his audience about the different salts he carries and why he chose them.
“This one is yuki shio snow salt” he boasted, “hailing from Seto City in the Aichi Prefecture in southern Japan. This one is mojio from Miyako City, far up north of Japan in the Iwate Prefecture.”
“What is the difference?” I inquired, since he was so generous with his knowledge, I might as well continue asking questions until he got annoyed. When I asked for his recommendation he immediately answered mojio, only because mosio is a very special salt that is cultivated from kelp that only grows underneath (sea) corral. Then he added: mojio is more delicate than yuki shio. Sold. Then the other guests asked for the salt to use instead of the soy sauce and every one of us ate uni sushi with salt.
By this time, it is already 11 am. I couldn’t believe two hours had passed. There was still more I wanted to see and hear at the market. There was a line forming outside of the teeny sushi bar, so I asked for the check. On my way out, he gave me his card and as it turns out, he is a managing director of the ever so popular chain.
Then, he told me to come back any time. Especially since I live so darn close. You know it, Saga-san. I will be back again very soon. Even if I’m not in the mood for uni.
Dear Tsukiji Market: I apologize for the previous post. I am absolutely, head over heels in love with you and now, on a mission to get to know you as much as I can before you move to the new grounds.
I have a little over a year left.
In case you’re interested in going to the uni bar, I will leave the information here. Unfortunately this is one of those places where if you don’t speak Japanese, you will probably have a very different experience than me.
Copy and paste this into Google Maps↓
Though I don’t think Google Maps will be too helpful; there are just too businesses jam packed in a confined space. So get as close to the Google Map pin as you can, walk down the alleyways until you find a sushi bar that looks like this ↓
Just a few steps away is the annex, the cubbyhole with only ten seats.
If all else fails, ask someone if they know where “Saga-san” is.
This is the mega uni bowl four of the people were eating. At nine. in. the. morning. Five different uni over rice, finished off with an egg. USD$23. I asked the lady next to me if I could take a photo of her food. So here it is.
Just going to leave the photo here because it’s really, that bonkers.