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April 29, 2010: Grades of Tuna

April 29, 2010

Photo by Yoshio Saito

When I visited Yoshio the other day in preparation to shooting of some of his sushi, we met in his local cafe and he told me about the how important the grade of fish must be for sushi. I was surprised to hear from him that 99% of all tuna we find here in America has been frozen, including sushi tuna. Tuna comes from many places: the Grand Banks, here; Chile;  Africa;  New Zealand; Australia, etc. but the best tuna is caught off Japan and is called O-Ma Maguro and is one of the few non-frozen tuna.

Keeping the tuna frozen is so important that many sushi chefs have freezers that are specially made to have sub-freezing temperatures to preserve the fish. It is very important to defrost the tuna slowly, lest you not lose the juices and make the meat tough. Defrosting slowly in the refrigerator is the best. You also want to seal the fish from air while defrosting.

Yoshio says that the larger tuna are the best. Smaller tuna are tough, bland tasting, and not as fatty. With my never even seen a tuna I asked how thick would a large tuna be? Yoshio shaped his arms as a bear hug, “This big” he said.

There are a few grades of tuna: the most fatty and flavorful is “Oo-toro” which comes from the belly part of the tuna. Next is “Toro” (now working our way up the side of the tuna from belly to back) which is more half fat and half meat. Next is “Chu-toro” which has even more meat vs fat. Last is “Maguro” which is rarely seen in sushi. Yoshio says maguro is what they can.

When Yoshio makes  sushi for large groups he has tuna air-shipped from Japan. He says that having sushi grade tuna for grilling gives him the option to offer guests of how they would like it: rare, medium, or well. He sometimes uses the “tataki” technique for grilling where you sear one side (and do not flip) of the tuna steak and slowly lower the temperature. This gives a steak that has the full range of cooking, throughout the steak, from rare to seared.

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