Tokyo – Eating Sushi in Tsukiji

As I mentioned in my previous post about Tsukiji market, I ate sushi nine times in the six days I stayed in Tsukiji, for breakfast, lunch and dinner! My excuse for this overindulgence is that sushi is one of my favourite ever foods and this was the best I’d ever eaten, so of course I had to fill my boots. Thankfully it was also the best value I’ve ever had, because of how close the restaurants were to the market.

As well as freshness, another key factor to eating sushi is seasonality. The winter is the best time to eat it (I was lucky to be there in late November/early December) because that’s when many sea creatures put on fat to protect themselves from the cold, and as we know, fat is where the flavour is. As a general rule of thumb then, the colder the water, the better the seafood.

I also got to eat several things I’d never tried before, thanks to the amazing selection that the world’s biggest fish market has to offer.

However, I should warn readers with a weak stomach that they might not find some of the things I mention below to be very palatable! Read on at your own risk!

If you’re thinking of visiting the wholesale fish market please note that it has relocated from Tsukiji to Toyosu in 2018. All the new and old locations of the businesses below are on my 2019 map.

Sushi Katsura (Intermediate B+), 〒104-0045 Tōkyō-to, Chūō-ku, Tsukiji, 2 Chome−15, 築地2丁目15−4 www.sushi-katsura.jp , still open

This was my first sushi experience of the trip, a quick lunch while I was waiting to check into my AirBnB. It had a good price/quality ratio so it’s a good place but nothing out of this world. The restaurant is a little difficult to find as it’s hidden down a back alley, but it’s just a couple of blocks away from Tsukiji market.

I had the Omakase, a standard sushi set which typically consists of the ‘chef’s choice’ of around nine Nigiris (hand-pressed rice balls with a seafood or omelette topping) and a Maki (a seaweed roll cut into six or eight sections).

The word Omakase translates as ‘to entrust’ so you’re literally saying to the chef ‘I’ll leave it up to you’. There’s an element of risk in doing that as you may not have the same tastes as the chef, who you’ve effectively just invited to surprise you, but usually you’ll get the best quality seafood in the restaurant at a cheaper price than if you were making the selection. Ordering a la carte is known as Okonomi and it’s fine to do this instead, but ideally you should know your sushi.

I sat at the bar where the sushi is served on banana leaves (as opposed to a beautiful lacquered box if you get a private room). The first serving of Nigiris included…

…Akami (lean red tuna), Ika (squid), Aji (horse mackerel, which is usually sliced with some skin remaining on one side and served with freshly grated ginger and minced scallions).

Also Chutoro (medium fatty tuna), Tai (sea bream), Sake (salmon, pronounced as “sha-keh” rather than as “sa-keh” for the fermented rice spirit of the same name ).

This comes with a stack of Gari; sliced pickled ginger that is used to cleanse the palate between different types of sushi. It also aids digestion and helps to kill microbes in the raw fish.

Sushi courses usually progress from lighter fish to richer, fattier ones. The second banana leaf held Hotate (scallop), Ebi (prawn/shrimp), Tako (octopus) and Unagi (freshwater eel, as opposed to Anago or Conger eel), Tamagoyaki (omelette) and trios of Kappa Maki (cucumber roll) and Oshinko Maki (aka Takuan aka pickled giant radish aka Daikon).

After the Omakase I still wanted more so I asked the chef for “shun no sakana” (fish of the seasons) and in return was given this. What’s your best guess?

They are Shirako (milt aka sperm sacs of male cod) which are briefly in season between December and February. So yes, this is one of the things I warned you about at the beginning of this post! All I can say is don’t knock it till you try it, it is actually really, really good. The pleasant flavour and creamy texture were sublime, definitely one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in Japan (A+). Eating milt is not unknown in Europe. In Sicily tuna milt is used as a pasta topping known as ‘lattume’. It would make a good test to separate the gourmets from the gourmands.

I finished with a pair of Toro Nigiris. The fatty marbled belly tuna looked almost like bacon but tasted even more sublime. An eye closing moment (A+).

One of my favourite restaurants was also just outside the market…

Tsukiji Sushidai Honkan (Intermediate A) 6 Chome-21-2 Tsukiji, Chūō-ku, Tōkyō-to 104-0045

This is a popular spot on the main road in front of the market area, Harumi Dori.

The opening hours were more acessable than the market restaurants so I ended up eating here three times. They have at least two sushi counters, in the basement and on the ground floor, and I think private rooms on the second floor.

I had the best negiri I’ve ever eaten here (A++); Kawahagi (filefish) with its own Kimo (liver) and a small amount of chives. The fish has quite a subtle taste but the addition of the creamy liver just sends it to another level. Absolutely sublime. I like it so much that next time I go to Japan I’m going to try and go to the port in Shizuoka where it’s landed and try it there.

I was very lucky to catch it in season (late October to early December).

My second favourite was Shirako again, here served with Ankimo (monkfish liver) another delicacy that has the nickname “foie gras of the sea”.

A second time it was served as a Gunkan Maki, which translates as ‘battleship style’. This is where a band of Nori (seaweed) is wrapped around a rice ball with a bit of space at the top to contain something that might otherwise fall off, such as Ikura (red salmon roe) or Tobiko (orange/yellow flying fish roe). You can see some Tobiko on top of the Shirako in the pic below.

Note the lack of soya sauce in any of these pictures, along with Wasabi (grated Japanese horseradish). Adding either would be poor etiquette as you’re questioning the quality of the restaurant’s fish. At Sushidai, if soya sauce is needed, the chef paints it straight onto the nigiri with a brush.

Here you can see the three main cuts of tuna; Otoro belly tuna at the top, medium fatty Chutoro below that and at the bottom lean Akami.

Another way I’ve heard it described is that there are two kinds, Akami and Toro, but there is two kinds of Toro, Chutoro and Otoro. The o- prefix in Japanese is an honorific that adds respect, in this case for the very best tuna.

In this photo you can see the big contrast between the fat content of Akami and Otoro.

As well as different cuts there are also different preparations. Aburi (flame seared) uses a blowtorch to change the flavour of the tuna, making it softer and adding an interesting aroma.

Negitoro (a blend of minced toro and Japanese green onion).

Otoro will always be the best though.

I love prawns and there were several different kinds.

Ama-ebi (sweet or Northern prawn) was my favourite.

Botan-ebi (pandalid shrimp) here it was served uncooked, which was very good, but I prefer the Ama-ebi.

Kuruma-ebi, a large salt-grilled prawn.

I also had some gresat deep-fried white prawns (A) which I couldn’t read the Japanese name for. They were eaten shells and all because they are so small, which reminded me of the tiny deep-fried prawns used for Tortillitas de Camarones in Cadiz (see here).

The difference between a prawn and a shrimp is a matter of great confusion amongst English speakers however no such distinction is made in Japanese, there are just different types of Ebi.

Uni (sea urchins) with strips of Nori (edible seaweed) for picking them up.

Sazae ( horned turban sea snail).

Akagai (ark shell) which was butterflied to fit on the nigiri.

Ika sashimi (raw squid without rice).

Other delicacies included…

Awabi (abalone).

Hamaguri (Orient clam, grilled).

And even a deep fried fishcake which caught me by suprise.

Tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette) looks good here too. Some people judge the quality of a sushi restaurant on how good the Tamagoyaki nigiris are.

My drink of choice with sushi on a cold winter evening is always Atsukan (hot sake).

So lots of variety and good quality sushi at Sushidai. The staff can be friendly, it’s easy to find, open late and you can usually get a seat. What’s not to like?

Into the market next…

The restaurants in the outer market opened at 5am to serve the market workers and closed early, which is why I had sushi for breakfast on a few occasions. Over time the clientele changed to tourists but the opening times stayed the same. I’m happy to say all three of the market shushi shops I went to have successfully made the move to Toyosu and are still in business. I give both the new and old addresses at the top of the review.

Sushi Dai was the most famous of the market sushi restaurants (now moved to Toyosu), and deservedly so I’m sure. However, when most tourists arrived at the market, they would automatically join Sushi Dai’s insanely long queue (sometimes four or more hours!) without actually knowing what they were queueing for. When I went I’d just walk around them and go into one of the many other excellent places in the same alley or the next which had virtually no people waiting.

This place was actually right next door to Sushi Dai…

Daiwa (Elementary A), OLD LOCATION: 〒104-0045 Tōkyō-to, Chūō-ku, Tsukiji, 5 Chome−2−1 築地市場6号館1F, NEW LOCATION: 6 Chome-3-2 Toyosu, Kōtō-ku, Tōkyō-to 135-0061

Okay, there was a short queue here as well as they are also quite famous, but it was only about 15 minutes max.

Rather than get the usual boring Omakase I asked the friendly chef for “shun no sakana” (fish of the seasons) in the hope of getting some more unusual nigiris. He didn’t disappoint.

The Tai (sea bream) was great (A). I’m told this kind of sea bream is impossible to get outside Japan.

I’d had grilled Hamaguri (Orient clam) at Sushi Dai but this was the first time on a nigiri (A).

I enjoyed the Engawa (flounder) as well (B+).

Buri (Japanese amberjack or yellowtail) was also nice (B).

Their Kawahagi (filefish) served with its own liver was stunning again, as it had been at Sushidai (A+). The Aji (horse mackerel) (A), Negitoro (minced toro with scallion (A), and Hotate (scallop) (B) were also good, as were many others the names of which I couldn’t catch.

Sushi Maru (High Elementary B+), OLD LOCATION: 5-2-1 Tsukiji | Tsukuji Whole Sale Market Bldg. 10, Tsukiji, Chuo 104-0045, NEW LOCATION:〒135-0061 Tōkyō-to, Kōtō-ku, Toyosu, 6 Chome−6−6 1 管理施設棟314, tukijikagura.jp

Although they do many of the typical nigiris that other places do, Sushi Maru seems to specialise in Aburi Sushi where the topside is lightly grilled with a blowtorch and the underside left raw.

When I went to the old location I had a the Aburi Jyu set which included grilled Sāmon (salmon), Ika (squid), Chutoro (medium fatty tuna) along with Ikura (salmon roe) and omelette, ginger and pickles on the side.

I also had Anago (Conger eel). By contrast Unagi (freshwater eel) is slightly richer and oilier. Both are painted with a brown sauce called Kabayaki and grilled.

I thought I’d compare Tsubugai (whelk) with Akagai (ark shell) and found the former more chewy (B-) and the latter more tender (B).

I also had some Kaki (oysters) which were good but a bit too big for my taste (B+).

Sushi Bun (High Elementary B+), OLD LOCATION: 8 Chuo Shijo Building, 5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, NEW LOCATION: 6 Chome-5 Toyosu, Koto, Tokyo 135-0061, www.tsukijinet.com

This shop specialised in Chirashizushi, sushi rice in a bowl with various seafood or vegetable toppings. I had it as part of a set with Miso soup, tea and pickles.

In my bowl I got Sāmon (salmon), Chutoro (medium fatty tuna) Uni (sea urchins). I prefer this sushi style when I’m very hungry as it’s more filling and satisfying than nigiris.

As an aside, did you know that salmon was only actually introduced as a sushi ingredient into Japan by a Norwegian entrepreneur in the 1980s!

Midori Ginza (Intermediate B-), 〒104-0061 Tokyo, Chūō, Ginza, 7 Chome−2番先 東京高速道路山下ビル 1F, www.sushinomidori.co.jp

So this popular sushi restaurant (one of a chain) is in neighbouring Ginza rather than Tsukiji but I wanted to show how different two sushi places can be, even when they’re both near the fish market. It’s popularity is due to the sushi being quite cheap in comparison to other mid-range places. I had to wait half an hour but got in eventually.

Here I had the usual Omakase which was fine if unexciting (B).

Also, some Sāmon Uramaki (inside out sushi roll) which had been drizzled with mayonnaise. You just wouldn’t see mayo or any sauces on sushi in a traditional Japanese sushi-ya. It’s more typical of Nikkei sushi, that is, second generation Japanese cuisine in the Americas where they like that kind of thing. I don’t mind it too much (B).

As another aside, California Roll is another example of a Nikkei Urumaki. One of the key ingredients in California Roll is Kani Kama, or imitation crab meat, another ingredient I have never seen used for sushi in Japan. Kani Kama is a kind of Surimi (imitation crab, lobster or eel which is actually made with fish paste, often pollock or cod) which is used elsewhere in Japanese cuisine, but not with sushi to my knowledge.

The biggest let down though was the Kawahagi, my favourite new discovery, which at Sushidai I’d scored A++. Although it looked the part it only scored a flavourless C and I have no idea why. Perhaps the attention to detail must be lacking in such a big busy place.

As a friend once told me, there are two things you should never skimp on in life, sushi and plastic surgery. Never was a wiser word spoken.

I did try to get into the three Michelin star Sukiyabashi Jiro www.sushi-jiro.jp in Ginza, but I didn’t succeed. It’s tiny and you have to book weeks ahead. Here anyway is the sushi master’s guide to eating sushi.

Expect a Toyosu post at some point…

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