Cooking Up a Storm at the Heart of Old Edo
John Ashburne and friends tour the great Tsukiji market with the staff of Tsukiji Cooking School before trying their hands at recreating some local dishes
“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.
Our teacher for the practical part of our Tsukiji experience is the irrepressibly cheerful Naoko Kawagoe who is ably assisted by her colleague and translator, Aya Maeda. Kawagoe-sensei has all the bubble and energy of a TV chef, and her enthusiasm is catching. We can’t wait to start.
Whilst we were shopping the two ladies had accomplished much of the preparation work for the half a dozen dishes that we will make this morning: nigirizushi, temarizushi, makizushi sushi rolls, niku dofu simmered beef and tofu, seared bonito steaks and miso soup.
The open kitchen at the Tsukiji Cooking School and the classroom with its large tables is the perfect environment in which to learn to cook, clean, well lit, spacious. Kawagoe-sensei sets us off with niku dofu, simmering the white blocks of tofu in mirin, soy sauce, sake and dashi stock, with thin slices of top quality beef and thinly sliced negi scallions. We add shirataki, thin ribbons of konnyaku konjac ‘noodles’.
From my writing on Japanese cuisine over the years, I know that explaining konnyaku, which is often translated into English as the rather unappetizing ‘Devil’s Tongue’ or ‘Elephant’s Foot’, can be problematic. Aya-san is, however, more than up to the task. “It’s a paste made from the root of the konjac plant, largely used for its consistency – it has no taste of its own – and the fact that it is zero calorie. It’s great for dieting”.
With the niku dofu under way and its delicious aroma filling the room we turn to that old Edo favorite, nigirizushi. Though it is now a worldwide phenomenon, sushi began as the convenient food of choice for the laborers and artisans working on Edo Castle. Relatively quick to prepare, it was portable, tasty and it could be eaten anywhere, including standing up.
Residents of Kyoto, still smarting from that decision to move the nation’s capital to Edo, are even today somewhat sniffy about the working class origins of Tokyo-style sushi, preferring their own temarizushi, sashimi and dining seated on tatami mats. The minute they get off the bullet train in Tokyo, of course, they rush to eat it just like the rest of us!
Nigirizushi, literally ‘pressed sushi’ is also known as Edomaezushi, ‘sushi made in front of Edo’, and we make it by creating sushi rice, adding vinegar to the gleaming white rice while still hot, then cooling it by fanning the mix with uchiwa fans emblazoned, what else, with Tsukiji Cooking School’s own logo. Traditionally this is a job given to children, and much hilarity ensues as we compete like kids to see who can fan longest and hardest. Soshi is the winner.
There are many possible neta or toppings for nigirizushi. Today Kawagoe-sensei has chosen the very finest, freshest chutoro, the best cut of Tsukiji-bought fatty skipjack tuna. It’s the finest in Japan, and thus we can say with some certainty, the finest on the planet.
We then turn our attention to making temarizushi. These are the tiny, ‘sushi balls’ that originated in Kyoto, and deemed suitably small and delicate for meals served to the young trainee geisha known as maiko. They are particularly simple to make, as you place neta and then rice on to a piece of plastic wrap, twist it tightly so that it forms a ball shape, then, voila! A rice ball. I am pretty pleased with how my shrimp and avocado and smoked salmon and caper sushi turn out.
All, however, will not always be so successful…
For a while our attention moves away from sushi. Kawagoe-sensei shows us how to thinly slice garlic and roast it in a mix of cooking oil and soy sauce until it turns golden brown and crispy. We remove the garlic, turn up the heat, and drop bite-sliced blocks of the chutoro fatty tuna into the spitting, mix. Using chopsticks, we repeatedly turn the tuna until all six sides of the fish have been seared in the oil, whilst the interior remains raw. This technique is known as aburi. We then place the tuna to one side, with the garlic, and return to our other preparations.
The final sushi preparation of the morning is makizushi, rolled sushi. This is the sushi that requi
res the most preparation, and as I shall find out to my cost, the most physical dexterity. Firstly we must make dashimaki egg roll to provide the filling alongside tuna, avocado and the aromatic, mint-like aoba shiso leaves. Dashimaki is akin to a kind
of Japanese egg omelet, but it is cooked in a small, rectangular frying pan, and as the egg mixture begins to harden you must jerk the pan abruptly upwards so that the egg mix falls back on itself, folding inwards, a process that is repeated until you have a perfect omelet roll. Kawagoe-sensei makes it look easy, but it’s a little tricky to get the rhythm right. Chaiyan and Soshi do great. I somehow manage.
The next step however is a different story. Sensei shows us how to place the dried nori seaweed sheet on to a special bamboo rolling mat called the makisu. On top of this you place the vinagered sushi rice, the dashimaki and other ingredients, then you simply roll the mat away from your body, constantly keeping the pressure on with your thumbs until you have rolled a perfectly cylindrical sushi roll that you slice and serve with soy sauce.
Chaiyan and Soshi turn out perfectly nice looking examples. Liran’s is a small masterpiece, looking like it could adorn any Tsukiji sushi shop’s showcase. Mine, on the other hand is a catastrophe. As I start rolling the makisu, I can sense that all is not going well. The middle of the roll seems to be spilling ingredients. I press harder, but this only serves to knock the whole creation further out of shape. I ease off the pressure, but then more ingredients bulge out the sides. Liran dives to the rescue. Perhaps four hands can save it?
Alas not. My makizushi looks like it has been run over by a delivery truck. I place the ungainly structure on the plate, and students and teacher alike peer at it with curiosity. Then everyone dissolves into laughter. Me too. Clearly I should stick to writing about sushi, not making it.
Thankfully, our final cooking task of the morning involves a task in which I have considerable experience: creating miso soup, and for that we must extract dashi stock. My wife, a Japanese chef, refers to me, somewhat tongue-in-cheek I suspect, as ‘Professor Dashi’, and the stock making duties in the Ashburne household now fall to me.
I love blending together seaweeds, katsuobushi, yakiago flying fish, dried mushrooms and other secret ingredients to create my own unique dashi stock. Yes, I’ll admit it, it’s more than a little geeky, but it makes me happy.
Kawagoe-sensei teaches us a simple dashi extraction of kombu kelp, soaked in advance in water for around an hour, and katsuobushi. We make sure to not let the mix boil, cooking over a moderate heat for several minutes, before extracting the seaweed before filtering the mix through a cotton cloth. Great clouds of steam fill the cooking studio, and a wonderful smell permeates the air. Soshi, engulfed in a cloud of ‘dashi steam’ exclaims ii nyoi desu ne! ”This smells fabulous!”. We add the dashi to awase red-and-white miso, with tofu and sliced negi scallions. And thus our Tsukiji meal is complete. Only one thing remains. We must eat.
Over the space of a few hours we have created a veritable feast. We are more than happy with the results. The tofu and beef are cooked to perfection. The sushi is wonderful, and despite its hideous appearance, even my makizushi tastes superb. As we eat sushi, slurp our miso soup, and sip on some Aomori sake served by Aya-san, an appreciative silence descends upon the group. This is what it has all been for. My own favorite is the seared aburi-style bonito, served in its garlic sauce, the perfect contrast of the raw and the cooked, the delicate and the flavorful. With the cold dry sake it tastes divine.
Learning to cook, and shop, in Tsukiji is a unique and highly fulfilling experience. It is part history lesson, part cultural study tour, part practical learning and a massive amount of fun. The staff at the Tsukiji Cooking School love what they do and their highly professional yet relaxed and easygoing manner make the time fly by.
We bid our farewells. Chaiyan is flying out to Bangkok that afternoon, LIran to Israel the following morning. Soshi and I will soon return to our homes in Japan. Our lives, cultures, languages and experiences are all very different, but in one corner of old Edo we have come together one morning to learn, to cook and to feast together. Monsieur Victor Hugo, at least in spirit, was with us too.
Photos © John F. Ashburne.