All of This Restaurant's Seafood Is Waste from the World's Biggest Fish Market
The fish is sourced entirely from the 20,000 tons of edible seafood that is thrown out each year due to “imperfections” ranging from scratched skin to discoloration.
In an underground food street not far from Tokyo station, Uoharu restaurant is packed most lunchtimes and evenings, frequented by the salarymen and OLs (office ladies) who descend from nearby headquarters of large companies. The seafood at this restaurant, just like 90 percent of the seafood that passes through Tokyo, comes from the famous Tsukiji Market. What sets Uoharu apart is that its fish is sourced entirely from the 20,000 tons of edible seafood that is thrown out each year at the market due to physical and varietal "imperfections" that range from missing limbs to scratched skin to discoloration.
This izakaya-style restaurant in Tokyo's affluent business district, Yurakucho, is in the pursuit of 'Mottainai, oishii ni kawaru', the process of turning wasted food into delicious cuisine. Mottainai is a Japanese term meaning 'wasteful', with connotations expressing regret for something that shouldn't be—and every day at Tsukiji there's a lot of Mottainai.
If it weren't for Uoharu, the tarnished, the limbless, the discolored, the oversized and undersized seafood would be in the trash, not on the plates of Tokyoites, creatively metamorphosed.
Each day at Tsukiji, the world's largest fish market, the day's catch arrives from around the world between 3 pm and midnight. It's laid out by seven wholesalers who hold 'seri' (auctions) every morning starting at 5 am, selling to 200 intermediate wholesalers, who then sell on to retailers and restaurants. Around 1,800 tons of more than 400 varieties of seafood is moved daily. In as little as 20 years though, the scene may be very different at Tsukiji—and every other fish market around the world. It's estimated that as much as 90 percent of the global fish stocks are currently overexploited, depleted, fully exploited or in recovery from exploitation, and this will only increase if the global fish industry continues on its current trajectory.
Uoharu is part of the Mottainai Project, a partnership between the largest Tsukiji intermediary, Yamaharu, as well as Tokyo restaurant operator, MUGEN (which has a business goal to create restaurants that 'rather than satisfy the hunger, provide food that meets the mind'), and marketing company A-Dot. Together, they are seeking to solve the waste problem at Tsukiji, and in doing so, reposition the image of 'wasted' food as a valuable commodity, raise social consciousness about sustainability, and set a trend for the broader food and beverage industries in Japan.
"The word waste has a negative image, and should not be used for discarded food that is fine", says Date Akira Hiroshi, Representative Director of A-Dot.
At Uoharu, piles of the day's mottainai seafood bounty glisten behind the counter. Tables are equipped with portable gas burners topped with a copper pot to cook the otoshi (appetizer)—usually rescued clams steamed in kombu dashi or sake. Next to burners lie the day's handwritten menu, complete with pictures. The full spectrum of izakaya fare is on offer: otsumami/ toriaezu (something to start with), agemono (fried things), meibustsu (house specialties), yakimono (grilled dishes), nitsuke (boiled things), sashimi, tofu dishes, and sweets.
Listed next to the dishes are the reasons the seafood was destined for the bin, to "stimulate interest". Head chef and restaurant manager Yoshiaki Ootahara explains some of the main glitches that turn this perfectly delicious seafood into waste in the minds of most chefs: non-standard size or shape, missing limbs, damaged or 'unsightly' appearance (like deep-water fish with googly eyes), varieties that aren't popular, take too long to prepare, are viewed as not being in peak season, or are part of an overhaul or underhaul. None are factors that hold any relevance to taste or freshness.
A waiter lights my stove and tends to the copper pot of clams, which didn't make it to the tables of other restaurants because of their "irregular size". They're plump, tender, and juicy.
Uoharu built its customer base largely by word-of-mouth, and many of its patrons have become regulars. According to Yoshiaki, customers are attracted by the opportunity to eat different fish each time they visit, as well as the chance to try lesser-known varieties and parts. There's also the added bonus of feeling like a good human.
Next to me, a team of Suntory execs is feasting on sashimi, braised maguro collarbone, grilled sasa flounder and taco takikomi gohan (octopus baked with rice), while knocking back swampy-colored genmaicha chuhai (brown rice matcha with shochu). They inquire about the project. They're curious about why the ostensibly perfect seafood was destined for the trash, the logistics of the operation, and who's behind this bold undertaking in an oft conformist Japanese society.
Yoshiaki explains that every morning around 9:30 am the chefs call the Yamaharu stores at Tsukiji to see which seafood is destined for the trash. Uoharu puts an order in, which is delivered around 1: 30 pm. He tells me that one of the biggest challenges of running the restaurant is putting the daily menu together with such short notice, but it's necessary because each day the available varieties and quantities of fish change. Chefs must also educate themselves about how to prepare uncommon species or cuts. The staff draw up the menu while the chefs work together to create dishes, a process of 'shikousago' (trial and error) and consulting "Google Sensei".
Sufficiently educated, I place my order:
Sashimi: Mackerel, bonito, red sea bream, yellowtail, and grunt fish—in the trash for assorted foibles.
Sazae (turban shell): The chefs at Uoharu finely sliced the sazae meat and cooked it in the shell in butter and sake. These would otherwise have been thrown out because they were too big, viewed as less flavorful and difficult to prepare in the standard way.
Mebaru (rockfish): Braised whole in soy and dashi broth, it's flavourful and tender, despite being on the Tsukiji waste list due to being slightly out of season.
Anko (grouper) karage: This twist on the popular chicken karage is dusted in cornflour and deep fried until perfectly crunchy, with a good bit of chew. This grouper was being thrown out due to a canceled order at the markets.
Shioyaki hiramasa (salt-grilled head of kingfish): This came served with a side of roughly grated oroshi (daikon), which the waitress recommended we dress with a bit of the pickled plum soy sauce in front of us. The body of this giant hiramasa had been used for sashimi, and the head was set to be discarded because it's typically awkward to prepare and eat, and therefore difficult to sell. There was easily enough meat for a meal for two.
Aside from the impending doom of unsustainable fishing and seafood consumption, there's also the consideration of global food aid—estimated at 5 million tons a year. Japan alone throws out an estimated 20 million tons of edible food a year. Both considerations make throwing out a crab because it's missing a leg seem pretty futile. Widespread reforms for sustainability are needed in the fisheries industry around the world. Japan, the largest seafood-consuming nation in the world, is behind other countries in regulating its industry, which makes it particularly reassuring to see a positive trend emerging in one part of the supply chain. Especially when it tastes so good.