What the fish? Japan’s ‘sushi king’ pays US$3million for a giant tuna

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WHAT price fish, you may ask? Japan’s “sushi king” paid one whale of a price for a giant bluefin tuna, shelling out a record 333.6 million yen (US$3million) for 612 pounds (278kg) of primo fish.

He certainly made big waves with his outrageous offer where the winning bid was more than double the annual New Year auction. But he soon was swimming in doubt, according to close friends.

“The tuna looks so tasty and very fresh, but I think I did too much,” Mr Kiyoshi Kimura (above), who owns the Sushi Zanmai chain, told Japanese broadcaster NHK. Wholesalers and sushi company owners often pay high prices for the best fish at the first pre-dawn auction of the New Year.

“I expected it would be between 30 million and 50 million yen, or 60 million yen at the highest, but it ended up five times more.”

Some of the big tuna, which is an endangered species, is likely will be served fresh at Kimura’s 51 restaurants throughout Japan. The rest will be flash frozen to perfectly preserve its flavour.

Mr Kimura has reportedly built his successful chain into a national brand by paying big money at Tsukiji’s first auction every year – he has now won for six straight years – essentially using the event for publicity for his sushi empire.

Decades-old Tsukiji remains one of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations as well as the world’s biggest fish market. The rare breed of fish was caught off the coast of northern Japan’s Aomori prefecture by fishermen from the small town of Oma, which has a nationwide reputation for the quality of its tuna catch.

‘BLACK DIAMOND’ OF TUNA

Oma tuna is known as the “black diamond” of tuna, because fishermen still use traditional manual fishing methods, rather than trawling, allowing them to catch the fish intact.

For fish-lovers round the world, the bluefin is considered an endangered species, but you wouldn’t know it from the fish Kimura splurged on, a torpedo-shaped trophy about five feet long and weighing as much as a grizzly bear.

Industry sources say bluefin prices have been jumping amid overfishing and surging demand for the tasty tuna, especially prized catches from Oma in northern Japan. The fish normally sells for up to $40 a pound but price rises to more than $200 a pound near the year’s end.

Experts warn that the bluefin faces possible extinction, with stocks of Pacific variety depleted by 96 per cent from their pre-industrial levels.

“The celebration surrounding the annual Pacific bluefin auction hides how deeply in trouble this species really is,” said Jamie Gibbon, associate manager for global tuna conservation at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

PROTECTING THE BLUEFIN

There are signs of progress toward protecting the bluefin, and Japan and other governments have backed plans to rebuild Pacific bluefin stocks, with a target of 20 percent of historic levels by 2034.

The Japanese government, together with other countries, is backing plans to rebuild Pacific bluefin stocks of the fish, which is currently depleted by 96 percent from their pre-industrial levels.

Believe it or not, there are an estimated 45,000 sushi restaurants across Japan. And sushi has spread far and wide around the world. In the United States, Europe, Australia, the UK, and even Singapore, you’ll find thousands of sushi bars and Japanese restaurants catering to a diverse demographic of people.

So, you may ask, what is it about sushi that makes it so popular beyond Japan’s borders?

In a sea-shell, it’s rare that you’ll be served a plate of sushi and find it coated with grease or swimming in oil. While it’s obviously not without calories and should be eaten in moderation, sushi is mainly steamed rice – making it a far healthier option you might think.

Singapore-based food journalist Ameline Ee says sushi is one of the easiest, most hassle-free foods to eat. Whether you’re sitting at a table or enjoying takeaway at home, sushi requires no utensils (unless you like to eat it with chopsticks) and makes little to no mess.

“You can eat sushi with one hand. You can eat it delicately and quickly. You can enjoy a huge variety of flavors in one dish, sampling diverse textures and aromas. Sushi is also easy to share when eating with others in a social situation,” she says. “It’s also easy to store and carry as a takeaway, without greasy stains or overpowering odours.”

End of the big fish sale, publicity, cheap thrill or whatever, Japan’s “sushi king” record-offer created tsunami-like headline waves globally for a rare breed of giant bluefin Oma-based tuna, which are ranked among the best in the world.

What the fish, you may well ask again!