I remember the moment it began, the night that launched me on a yearlong quest to solve the mystery of what happened to tuna.
Two slabs of tuna sat on the plate, ruby red and shining with moisture. I was sitting with my wife at the bar in one of the city’s best sushi restaurants, and my mouth began watering in memory of what so many previous meals had told me was coming. The next bite would bring the sweet, saltwatery succulence I’d waited an entire meal for. We dug in with our chopsticks.
My wife would often close her eyes when eating tuna, the better to savor it. But now she turned to me in astonishment. This fish was an impostor. It looked the part, but it was mealy, soft, flavorless.
Maybe, I said to my wife, it was a bad piece of fish. I brought up this possibility with the chef, who gladly sliced us off a couple more pieces from a ruby-red loin. But these were no better.
We chalked it up to a bad night, although it was a little hard to accept that line of reasoning: Every other piece of fish we ate that night—yellowtail, mackerel, salmon—had been as wonderful as before.
A month later we returned. We ordered the same meal as before and got the same results. The usual sushi chef was not there, so I asked his assistant about the tuna. Were they going somewhere else for their fish? A different supplier, a different variety? “Nope,” he told me. “Same tuna we always get.” He seemed more perplexed than I did.
Was it possible they were doing something different in the kitchen? “We do,” he said, “what we always do.”
As I made my rounds about town as a restaurant critic and traveled to other cities to keep abreast of trends, I decided to see whether I’d had a bad run of tuna or whether tuna itself was having a bad run. I ordered tuna everywhere I saw it. In all, I consumed some seven dozen different preparations. I was struck, first of all, by the consistency of what I ate. It did not matter whether I was in Northern Virginia, Maryland, or DC—or in New York, Philadelphia, or Charleston. It did not matter whether it was served raw—in any number of iterations of sushi or sashimi or carpaccio or tartare—or seared in a pan and offered up as a fishlike version of steak. The tuna was as mealy and soft and tasteless as what I’d eaten at the sushi bar in DC.
Only two tuna dishes I ate all year reminded me of what I used to crave. One was an appetizer, called Fire and Ice, at the Inn at Little Washington, a Band-Aid-size portion paired with a cucumber sorbet. It costs $138 or $168—the prices of the inn’s prix fixe four-course menu—to get it. The other was at Bar Masa in New York, the “cheaper” alternative to Masa, where dinner goes for $600 a person. The fish was good. Very good. It also cost a small fortune.
Most preparations of tuna I tried didn’t even approach “good.” At some point during one of these tuna-eating excursions, my wife turned and said, “I know you’re obligated to keep ordering it. But you know? I don’t care if I never eat it again.”
What happened to tuna?
A generation ago, most Washingtonians thought tuna was something that came out of a can. Tuna was tuna fish—firm, taupe-colored flakes that were blended with jarred mayo to make a nice spread for sandwiches.
Then sushi arrived, and suddenly the notion of tuna not from a can—of tuna you paid good money for—was not so far-fetched. Tuna, with salmon and yellowtail, formed the holy trinity for sushi eaters. We judged a place by the quality of those three fishes—how succulent, how firm, how cool. Toro, or fatty tuna, the belly of the fish, became an obsession, the single piece sushi eaters lived for. I had come to believe that a great piece of toro was akin to a great steak and in some ways superior to it. When it was good, toro virtually melted on the tongue.
Chefs who were not sushi chefs discovered that tuna, because it was firm and meaty, could be turned into a substitute for steak. With some customers spooked by mad-cow disease and fearful of a high-beef diet, seared tuna became a piscatorial savior for many chefs. It was the new swordfish, only more popular than swordfish ever had been. By 2000, even chains such as Friday’s and Applebee’s were featuring seared tuna.
Once a luxury, tuna had been democratized to the point of ubiquity. Somewhere along the way, it became something else: a food that is only good when prepared at the highest level.
Who is to blame? According to the more than 30 chefs I talked with, there is no shortage of culprits.
The explosion of sushi in the West has resulted in overfishing in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, which has depleted the supply of bluefin tuna, the backbone of the sushi industry. Many chefs believe that the bluefin, with its high fat content and rich, marbled flesh, is the world’s best tuna; the bidding wars that break out in the auction houses of Japan for these hulking specimens bear this out. These days, the bluefin is approaching extinction.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, bluefin catches have dwindled to less than a sixth of what they were ten years ago. Sergi Tudela, the head of fisheries at the fund’s Mediterranean program, has issued a warning: “We are near collapse of the bluefin tuna species in the Mediterranean and the east Atlantic.”
Equally uncertain is the fate of the bigeye tuna, which is found in and around the Pacific and is nearly as good as bluefin. (The leaner yellowfin tuna is much less prized; it often turns up on many midlevel and chain-restaurant menus under its marketing name, ahi.)
It’s not just demand outstripping supply. If this is the age of the global-minded chef, when buying ingredients from around the world is as simple as clicking and pointing, it’s also the age of the global-minded fisherman. A number of chefs in Washington depend on independent buyers to deliver them fresh, line-caught fish, whether from the cold waters of New England or the warmer waters of the Mid-Atlantic and the Gulf. In recent years, fishermen have gotten wise and begun overnighting their catches to Japan for double and triple the prices they can get domestically.
Russell Gravatt, one of the owners of Sushi-Ko, has watched the tuna market explode since he and his partner, Daisu Utagawa, opened DC’s first sushi restaurant in 1976. “It used to be pretty straightforward,” says Gravatt. “You could get what you wanted, no problem. Now all those big mondo fish are going to Japan. I got a guy in Chatham, Massachusetts. FedEx has changed his life. He sends to Japan all the time. He can get twice what he can here.”
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, only 5 percent of all bluefin tuna caught in the North Atlantic ends up in the hands of American chefs; the rest finds its way to the auction block in Japan.
Japanese buyers will pay as much as $100,000 for a good-size, fatty bluefin tuna. “It shouldn’t come as any surprise why most of it winds up in Japan,” says Bob Kinkead, executive chef and owner of Kinkead’s, the popular downtown DC seafood emporium. “The difference now is that they have their fishing boats all over the world.”
The Japanese boats are helped by strict US quotas that curtail the ability of American fishermen to compete. American commercial waters stretch 200 miles into the Atlantic. But beyond that, waters are open to international competitors who do not have to abide by the same regulations as American fishermen.
Robert Wiedmaier, the chef and proprietor of Marcel’s in downtown DC, says the relationship between the Japanese and tuna is about more than economics: “You’re talking about a culture that understands and recognizes tuna for what it is. In America, you have the steak. In Japan, you have tuna. The Japanese will pay top dollar for good tuna.”
The result is that it’s becoming harder and harder for American chefs to get the good stuff.
Yet the public’s appetite for tuna—despite the mealiness of so much of the fish out there and increasing reports of high levels of mercury that have been tainting tuna and making news since last summer—shows no signs of flagging. Which means more and more of the not-so-good stuff finds its way into the marketplace. It also means that more and more dubious practices are becoming commonplace.
“I can’t even fathom how tuna still exists,” says Wiedmaier. “The fish industry is probably the most corrupt industry in the food chain, because there are no controls.”
As the tuna industry has become as global as the diamond trade—and as frenzied and competitive—illegal fishing is rampant, and freezing fish at the docks has become common.
Cheaper sushi bars often use what is called saku, or wood-gassed tuna, suspending the fish in a cloud of below-freezing air to fix its color and stall its deterioration. Saku is also what shows up in the sushi assortments in the refrigerated cases of some grocery stores. “You’ll know it if you see it,” says Gravatt. “It’s beautiful to look at. It doesn’t taste like anything, but it’s as red as a bottle of ketchup.” Because this tuna is cold-smoked, freezing doesn’t affect its texture too much. And if texture is not everything with tuna, it is most things.
Tuna and salmon are easier to freeze than other fish. That and tuna’s popularity account for the ubiquity of subthermal freezers. The function of these freezers is to extend the shelf life of a fresh-caught tuna—preserving its texture and color—so it can stay out of the water longer without suffering the effects of exposure. Because of subthermal freezers, a piece of fish can arrive at a restaurant in Washington weeks after it was caught and still be put to use.
“You take it out, put it in 98.6-degree water for a few minutes with a couple of tablespoons of salt, and it’s pretty good,” says Gravatt.
Will it taste as fresh as when it was just taken from the deep? No. But neither will it be spoiled.
Kaz Okochi, of DC’s Kaz Sushi Bistro, told me that among the varieties of tuna he buys is one that is caught off the western coast of Florida. It takes an average of three days from the time the fish is caught to reach his supplier and another day to reach his restaurant. Without subthermal freezing, the fish would have spoiled before it arrived in DC.
If four days sounds like too long out of water for a piece of raw fish—the antithesis of the credo of freshness that many sushi restaurants trade on—consider this: Kaz Sushi Bistro is among the most reputable sushi restaurants in the area. Okochi considers himself a purist.
Yu Sheon, manager of Café Asia, with locations in Arlington and DC, says that a skilled chef can do much to prolong the shelf life of fish: changing its wrapper frequently (“several times a day, at least”), maintaining a strict temperature, continually washing his hands. “If you can really preserve it well and nicely,” Sheon says, “you can keep a piece of fish around for a while.”
James Tan, the manager of Dupont Circle’s Uni, notes that once a fish has thawed, it can be kept around “a maximum of three days.” Which means that even at a popular, well-regarded restaurant you might be eating a piece of tuna that was caught a week earlier and kept frozen until dinner.
The nation’s poorly developed distribution system is partly to blame—in Japan, a four-day wait is unheard of. But also to blame are new technologies that have arisen to mask the problem.
Besides freezing to prolong the shelf life, there is the growing practice of injecting fish with red dye to make it more eye-catching. Some stores, such as Whole Foods, have taken it upon themselves to alert consumers to this practice. But I’ve never seen any such notice on a restaurant menu.
Some diners are victims of their own expanded knowledge. Early in our sushi educations, we were taught to prize tuna that was a deep, dark red—the redder the better. According to Sheon, this is a misconception: “Brilliant red does not necessarily mean fresher.” Sometimes sushi chefs can tell a doctored piece, he says, and sometimes they can’t. And if a chef can’t tell the difference between the two, woe be to the diner.