Early last week, I was lured into the French Culinary Institute in SoHo by sweet promises of freshly sliced sashimi and a chance to witness a masterful dissection of a tuna. Curious and hungry culinary students and professional chefs evidently fell for the bait too, filling up the seats in the small auditorium to witness the artful slicing and deconstructing of Kindai tuna by Chef Toshio Suzuki of Sushi Zen, Chef Noriyuki Kobayashi of Megu and Chef Kazuhiro Sato of Poke.
Kindai tuna is born and raised at Kinki University in Higashi-Osaka, Japan. Born in the laboratory and hand fed wild catch, they are raised in better conditions than other farm-raised tuna and offer a more sustainable alternative to wild bluefin tuna.
The introduction of the lecture was led by Nick Sakagami, who described Kindai tuna as “couch potatoes” in comparison to their “athletic” wild counterparts. Less active and therefore subsisting on less mercury-laden wild catch, the mercury levels in Kindai tuna are only .6 parts per million, while wild tuna often have levels of 1 to 2 parts per million.
Organized by the Gohan Society, this demonstration was a rare opportunity to taste Kindai tuna. Raising tuna by these methods is pricey–about 200 Kindai tuna are successfully raised every year and only 1 to 2 fish shipped to the United States every week.
The official Kindai Tuna seal of approval indicates and ensures that the has been raised at Kinki University. Now, for the cutting of the tuna!
We watched as the three chefs wrestled the fish and skillfully attacked it with an artillery of sharp knives. First, an incision was made along the side of the fish, then through the gill to take off the head with a long square-shaped knife. The rest was then cut up into more manageable segments, using smaller, precise knives, and laid aside to be carefully sliced into fillets later on.
Since the fish is killed by stunning it with electricity, there is often some bleeding near the spine–that part is sliced away by Chef Suzuki and saved to be cooked later on. Electric shock is a common slaughtering technique used to quickly stun and kill fish.
Some more slicing.
Small tasting plates of tuna were passed around for everyone to try, each bite-sized piece a different gradient of pink and from a different part of the fish. The buttery “oh toro” and “chu toro” differed slightly in fattiness, but both were equally delicious and smooth. The leaner “akami” and “hakaochi” had a gamier taste and buoyant texture, while the small spoonful of “assorted scrape” burst with a bright punch of citrus and a hint of onion flavor from the thin scallion shavings. (Check out the plating cheat sheet below for some proper Japanese tuna terminology)
The correct way to eat sashimi, especially with freshly grated wasabi, is the double-dipping method. First dip one side of the fish generously in the wasabi, then follow through with a second dip into the soy sauce, gliding the portion of the fish that has not come in contact with the wasabi quickly across the pool of soy sauce–be careful as to not submerge the whole piece. This method preserves the spicy, subtle taste of wasabi without being muddled by the saltiness of the soy sauce. According to Chef Suzuki, mixing together soy sauce with fresh wasabi overpowers and ruins the wasabi flavor. Unlike the spicy green goop you find at cheaper sushi places that is usually made from a powder, fresh wasabi has a lighter, refreshingly pungent flavor, since it is not mixed in with horseradish or other fillers.
The bigger slabs are pared down into clean, long rectangular slabs, ready to be sliced into sashimi-sized slivers.
Second round of tasting was cooked tuna. Little white ceramic bowls containing chunks of broiled tuna with caramelized onions were passed around for us to try. Midway through our tuna, Chef Kobayashi emerged from the kitchen with a tray of tuna spines and asks, “Sorry there is not enough for everyone, but who wants to try?”. Luckily, I was one of the few who looked eager enough to deserve a taste of broiled tuna spine. The spine was cut up into individual vertebrae, each a tiny shot of briny cartilage topped with a sprinkling of sesame seeds and chopped scallions. The meat surrounding each vertebrae charred to a smoky perfection and packed with flavor from the bone.
Chef Kobayashi extracts the eyeballs with a sharp knife.
Broiled tuna brain (above) tasted surprisingly similar to the meat of the fish, except with a denser texture and richer flavor.
For the more adventurous eaters, chunks of freshly cut vertebrae were passed around. It was more gelatinous and gooey than the cooked version but meatier around the bone. After slurping up the cartilage I proceeded to gnaw the meat off the bone.
Chef Anita Lo trying some blackened tuna jerky.
Although only certain parts of the fish are eaten raw, sashimi-style, none of it goes to waste. It may look like a gruesome murder scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie, but the collar, eyes, and brain are cooked and made into other delicious tuna dishes.
Even the fatty scrapings from the skin of the tuna are used to as filling for maki rolls.
At the end of the demonstration, slabs of tuna were sold, individually wrapped in plastic and packed into iced bags for those who wanted to bring tuna home for dinner. After my $30 worth of medium-fatty tuna was all weighed and paid for, I snuck into the kitchen sweetly asked one of the chefs for some fresh wasabi. A quick glance and a nod later, I was out the door and on my way home, with wasabi and tuna in tow.
200 Chambers St
New York, NY 10007-1131
French Culinary Institute
New York, NY 10013-2618
Coming up: Prepping Kindai tuna sashimi at home