Why Brooklyn Needs a Japanese-Style Fish Market

When I see American fishermen properly handling and packaging fish in the way it deserves, I would love to pay them for the trouble of performing ikejime. That’s how I want to change the American seafood culture from the bottom up.

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Mar 16 2016, 3:00pm

OSAKANA staff playing around. Courtesy of OKONOMI // YUJI Ramen

When I opened my restaurant, OKONOMI // YUJI Ramen, customers wouldn't stop asking me where they should buy their fish. The US is a meat-heavy country, although sushi did help bring up the fish consumption. Americans don't know a lot about seafood and that's why people are willing to eat fish in a restaurant but not so much at home. Five or ten years ago, it was too early to start a Japanese style fish market, but I think now is a time people want to know more—they are more interested in food than ever. People are so inspired by beautiful food and culture. Now it's my challenge to bring it to the next step, which is to make amazing seafood available for the customers to enjoy at home.

Yuji Haraguchi. Photo by Alex Swerdloff

Yuji Haraguchi. Photo by Alex Swerdloff

I was working a regular corporate job in Japan, but cooking is something I love doing and I wanted to make a living out of it. I moved to Boston and I found a job at this Japanese fish wholesale company. I didn't know anything about seafood, but my job was to introduce sushi-quality tuna and fish that was shipped from Tsukiji Market to Western fine-dining restaurants. The fish from Tokyo would be packaged so beautifully and it was of such high quality. No two fish would ever be touching each other in the shipping box.

People always ask me if the fish in Japan is better than the US. The answer is no. They're both as good in the ocean. People make it worse or better after they catch it.

Then I moved to New York and started YUJI Ramen after running a pop-up for a short while. I wanted to introduce Americans to Japanese seafood that isn't sushi, and even though it is very rare to use fresh seafood for ramen broth in Japan, I started to make a seafood-based ramen. I'm very, very close to the people I'm getting the fish from right now—they are my old colleagues—so I completely understand how they work. When they don't have something, they don't. That's why we don't have a menu at our breakfast. We order certain fish and then go to the fish market and see whatever is the best. If something looks better than what I had in mind, I'll use that.

READ MORE: Step Inside the World's Most Legendary Fish Market

The fish market we are crowdfunding to start, OSAKANA, won't have unnecessary selections. I was at Whole Foods today and they have four kind of white fish that are identical from all over the world, plus three types of tuna, albacore from Ecuador, bigeye from somewhere else, and yellowtail from the US, two kinds of salmon, wild and farm-raised. It's just way too many options so people don't know what to get. They don't need that many options. And it's better for the turnover of the fish to limit choices, so it's always fresh. It's impossible to have that much fish consumed at the same time.

Rendering of the OSAKANA retail space. Courtesy of OKONOMI // YUJI Ramen

Rendering of the OSAKANA retail space. Courtesy of OKONOMI // YUJI Ramen
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I don't imagine OSAKANA working at a high-volume level. It's going to be like sushi or like a high-end restaurant, very small-scale. We'll probably sell out every single day. We'll just get whatever is fresh, sell out, get new stuff tomorrow, and sell out. I think that's the best situation.

A Japanese-style fish market doesn't mean we are going get fish from Japan. We are going to apply the philosophy, the culture, the handling and caring of fish in the Japanese style. We'll treat domestic fish like they do in the Tsukiji Market and have domestic fish of the quality as they have in Japan. People always ask me if the fish in Japan is better than the US. The answer is no. They're both as good in the ocean. People make it worse or better after they catch it. It's so much about the extra steps people are willing to take or not that make the quality so different. So OSAKANA will apply the same philosophy and same care and same respect to domestic fish. We are going to make American fish great again.

OSAKANA will teach people how to use the entire fish. People waste so much. The head, the bones, the guts, is 30 or 40 percent of the fish.

I'd love to see ikejime [a technique of paralyzing fish to maintain the quality of the meat and alter its firmness] implemented more in the United States but that's like three steps ahead. I'm sure there are a lot of small fishermen who are willing to kill using ikejime and catch everything without nets, but I don't believe there are enough places where they can sell that quality at a higher price. When I have OSAKANA established, and when I see American fishermen properly handling and packaging fish in the way it deserves, I would love to pay them for the trouble of performing ikejime. That's how I want to change the American seafood culture from the bottom up.

Rendering of OSAKANA back bar. Courtesy of OKONOMI // YUJI Ramen

Rendering of OSAKANA back bar. Courtesy of OKONOMI // YUJI Ramen

OSAKANA will teach people how to use the entire fish. We aren't going to have a massive amount of fish butchered and portioned, like most places, which is a really bad thing because the more you cut, the more water leaks out, so the fish deteriorates and loses flavor. We are going to try to have the fish whole, but clean and ready to cut when people ask for their portions. I really hope our customers will be coming to get the whole fish, and use the head for something, so everything is completely utilized. People waste so much. The head, the bones, the guts, is 30 or 40 percent of the fish.

READ MORE: We Should Be Eating Fish at the Bottom of the Food Chain

I remember a time in Boston about five years ago, when a very old American gentleman approached me. He said, "I'm very thankful for the Japanese fishermen who taught me how to kill bluefin tuna and how to ship it." In Boston, bluefin tuna had been considered garbage—they were actually throwing away the belly! Then they found out, when my old company started paying the fishermen, that this was something they could sell. So we spent time educating American fishermen. That story really inspires me because selling bluefin had brought that man a high price—otherwise he wouldn't do it for no money. This is just such a beautiful story. People should have respect for whatever they catch. This discussion with that guy has always been my inspiration, my vision. American fishermen should profit more and catch less.

Yuji Haraguchi is the chef and restaurateur behind OKONOMI // YUJI Ramen. He is a former businessman and fish wholesaler and has run pop-ups at both Kinfolk Studios and Whole Foods.