What is the origin of Maguro?
Maguro is the Japanese name for bluefin tuna, which has widely become one of the most popular sushi menu items around the world. Japanese people have been catching and eating bluefin tuna for centuries, but for a long time, Maguro was considered to be a low-class fish to eat, with its fattier meat and strong flavors. Then, in the 20th century, as people’s tastes changed and the fishing industry was able to make vast improvements and numerous innovations, Maguro started to rapidly gain in popularity. This, combined with the semi-recent Japanese food trend boom in Western countries, has led bluefin tuna to become, over the last several decades, the single most popular commodity in the international fresh fish market.
How do you eat Maguro?
First, you can identify Maguro by its darker, redder hue compared to that of cuts of other fish. Also, it is important to remember some important facts about bluefin tuna when ordering at a sushi restaurant. First, there are generally 2 cuts of bluefin tuna that you will see served. There is akami tuna, which is a less fatty, leaner and is cut from the sides of the fish. Then there is toro tuna which is much fattier and is cut from the belly section of the fish. Toro is even broken down into 2 subcategories (for the expert connoisseurs) which are chutoro and otoro. Chutoro is cut from the side belly area located between the akami side and the otoro belly sections of the fish. It is fattier than the akami but, not as fatty as the otoro. Then you have otoro sushi, craved from the fattiest part of the fish belly. This part is widely popular for its succulent texture and delicious flavor. One of the most common ways to enjoy Maguro is the traditional Japanese way, placing a thin slice of fish on rice sashimi style (raw).The other common way of eatting Maguro is in the bright red center of a set of maki rolls. But there are a myriad of other ways to prepare, style, and serve bluefin tuna for people of various cultures, climates, and taste preferences.
Where can you find the best Maguro?
Well, if you are looking to buy the fish directly, you should head on down to the world-famous Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Market, which, earlier this year moved to its new location in Toyosu. This is the first time it has moved since opening in 1935. You will have to visit in the early hours of the morning, but there you can procure some of the best and freshest catches of many types of fish. However, the increasingly rare bluefin tuna comes at a premium price. During the first auction of 2019, renowned sushi tycoon Kiyoshi Kimura (of Sushi Zanmai fame, yes the wide armed statue in front of their restaurants) bought a 278kg (612lbs) bluefin tuna for a staggering $3.1 million, more than doubling the previous record-high bid. I think it is fair to assume that most of us do not have that kind of money to throw around for lunch.
If you are looking to try some of this Japanese delicacy, here are some restaurants that I recommend:
This upscale sushi restaurant is in Setagaya, just a short walk South from Okusawa station. The name irifune loosely means “entering the ship” to give you the feeling of how fresh the fish are. This little restaurant serves Maguro sushi in a variety of different ways from bowls, to sushi platters, to individual pieces. This cozy and humble-looking shop is not for the casual night out. Make sure you bring your wallet (with money in it, of course) because sushi quality that is this good does not come cheap.
Are you looking for a Maguro-based experience with a little bit more flair? Then you should make a reservation at the appropriately named Maguro Shoten. This exciting restaurant is conveniently located in the Kabukicho area near Shinjuku station. They pride themselves on their style and preparation of bluefin tuna. Every evening they put on a fun and educational performance where they cut up and serve an entire one of these massive and beautiful creatures from start to finish right before your very eyes. They will demonstrate for you right there at the counter the way that they separate the different parts of the tuna with some explanation as to which cuts have which names and which flavors. And a night out at Maguro Shoten will only cost you a few thousand yen. If you are curious about the culinary expertise required for ensuring that you serve the best quality Maguro, then this restaurant is a must-see destination!
This delightful little eatery lists their product on their FaceBook profile page as “Maguro. Maguro. Maguro.” (So, you can guess what their focus is.) Located North of Nakano station and just past the Nakano Broadway shopping center, this restaurant is proud to serve up fresh and delicious Maguro for a price that will not break the bank. They have several different sizes of appetizers and entrees that do not conform to the normal sushi or maki roll style, and many of these items are still below 1000 yen. So, if you want to try a more unique Maguro experience in a cheaper and more casual setting then head the short train ride up to Nakano and check them out.
Magurodake Bono Shirakawa
This tiny little storefront restaurant is easy to miss but hard to forget. It is tucked away in a less traveled corner of Roppongi just North of Roppongi-Itchome station, and with a name like Magurodake that literally means “only tuna” you can easily deduce why I have included it in this list. This somewhat nondescript eatery specializes in serving their Maguro in the form of rice bowls where you get several delicious slices of your preferred section of the tuna layered on a bowl of rice. This is definitely a great way to get a solid introduction to Maguro if you are not familiar and do not want to go to a large sushi restaurant. If you find yourself over Roppongi and craving some incredible seafood, you now know where to go.
What makes it the best?
There are a few different varieties of tuna in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and all of them are of considerable in size. The Atlantic variety average out at about 380 kg (that is roughly 5x more than me). The biggest bluefin tuna ever caught came from off the Eastern coast of Canada and weighed a whopping 678 kg. So, needless to say, these aquatic beasts are at the top of their food chain. And they have long migration patterns across the entire ocean for spawning and reproduction. So, the bluefin tuna tend to be strong and athletic swimmers which gives them lots of tender muscular tissue and fat stores. As a food item, this gives their meat a rich flavor with a buttery and supple texture. If you combine all these elements with the fact that you can eat most of the animal and very little goes to waste, then you have a recipe for a champion menu item for seafood lovers throughout the world.
Is Maguro popular? With Whom?
Maguro has spent years ascending to the height of popularity in Japan which has, in turn, spread the love of this fish around the world. The main discovery that led to widespread and mass distribution possibilities for bluefin tuna was that it can retain its bright red color and freshness if it is stored at -60 degrees Celsius. This meant, with the aid of liquid nitrogen as a coolant, people all over Japan could enjoy this fish and it could even be exported to other countries so that they could develop a growing appetite for this delicacy as well. Places such as the United States, Europe, South America, Australia, and even parts of the Middle East are all now consumers and importers of fresh Maguro.
However, the popularity of bluefin tuna has led to massively increased fishing and a substantial reduction in the population of this fish. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) officially lists the Pacific bluefin tuna as an endangered species. This has driven the prices for it higher and higher, leading to the previously mentioned record-setting purchase of millions of dollars for a single fish. Since the middle of last year, prices for Maguro sushi have risen by around 40%. But this does not seem to have yet slowed the demand for Maguro.
Are there other types of sushi that are more popular?
If you have ever gone to a sushi restaurant with a large group, you have probably seen one of the giant sushi platters that are available throughout Tokyo. I always find them quite impressive and beautifully arranged for maximum aesthetic value. In fact, my very first night ever in Japan I was treated to a few of these by some incredibly nice Japanese friends. But the thing that struck me the most was the variety. There were more types of sushi than I ever imagined and definitely more types of fish than I had ever eaten, and many of them are also extremely popular. And the best part is that they are not nearly as expensive as Maguro. This is very useful if you are trying to save money.
The first one (that I actually was familiar with) is sake (salmon). The more orange-pink colored fish (featured in the picture above) that you can find at any sushi restaurant high or low. Also, quite popular and a consistent sushi menu appearance is the squid. It is usually a very pale white color (sometimes almost translucent). Another dish that delicious and not too expensive is unagi (eel). I never tried eel in the United States, but I have grown to love it. It has a different texture and darker color than most fish sushi and often comes coated in a tasty sweet sauce. If you have not been brave enough to try eel, please give it a go. I promise it is worth it. However, my favorite sushi item has become shrimp tempura. I love fried things (who doesn’t?) so when I sit down at my table, I go straight for the ebi (shrimp) tempura button and order a few. For this item, I suggest applying sauces liberally. It is a great way to start off any sushi dining experience. You can also get sweet shrimp sushi that is not fried, but why would you?
Do you think Maguro (Tuna Fish Sushi) is the best?
Have you tried some of these rarefied Japanese sushi? Does it live up to the hype and the increasing cost? If you have not yet tried this delicious Maguro tuna, I recommend doing so as soon as possible, especially now that you are an expert. If demand keeps increasing and the population of bluefin tuna continues to decline, this tasty item may soon disappear from menus across Tokyo (or at least you and I may not be able to afford them) until the fishing industry is forced to give these animals a long break to repopulate. In the meantime, which other type of Japanese sushi is your all-time favorite? Let us know! And until next time, stay curious and keep exploring.