Food & drink

From cat food to luxury fare

Any lover of Japanese cuisine, particularly sushi, knows that tuna is the traditional ingredient of choice, right? Wrong. The preferred fish always used to make sashimi, nigirizushi, hosomaki etc. was, until comparatively recently, white fish, more akin to the rosada and pez limón that we are accustomed to eating in Spain. The occasional hype in the media revolves around the outlandish prices paid for tuna at auctions in the Tsukiji (Tokyo) fish market are of comparatively recent making.

In fact tuna was hardly rated at all until it was found to be freezer-friendly and easy to transport by air. Owing to the large amount of fat in the meat, especially in the part now looked upon as the choice cut, the stomach (ventresca), no-one wanted to eat it. In most Mediterranean countries it was cat food.

Ask most Japanese how they got a taste for tuna and they will probably tell you that the fish is of better quality now than previously - hardly a plausible reason. Nor will they tell you that it is easier to obtain than ever. It is really Japan Airlines that deserve to get whatever credit is due. When Japanese-manufactured electrical goods, such as TVs and radios were exported worldwide, the cargo planes that took them to America, for example, flew back empty.

After looking around, some airline executives realised that the tuna caught by fishermen in the North Atlantic would make good return ballast, and suddenly Japan's sushi restaurants had a new source of raw material.

Tuna is currently imported into Japan from many countries, including Spain, but only premium specimens are acquired by the best restaurants. Farmed fish is of no interest to the perfectionists. Interestingly, tuna is always sold by auction and always frozen. In the long chain between source and final consumer, there are experts in freezing and experts in cutting up the fish. Apparently many of these can, by inserting a knife in the flesh, gauge the proportion of fat in the fish and what it may fetch at auction.