Sliced, diced and matched with malt

Dave heads to one of the world's most famous fish markets to discover how Japanese seafood works with Scotch malt whisky
By Rob Allanson
Four o’clock in the morning at the Park Hotel in Tokyo and the barstaff are winding down after their shift. No more ice balls, just large Jack Daniel’s.They’re heading for bed as I head to work. Not for the first time it strikes me how we’re living in opposite time zones.

The morning is cold as we head down to Tsukiji. A half moon hangs above the market, its pale light mirrored by the dim bulbs, which barely light this city within a city. A 10 minute walk has taken us from the razored spires of Shiodome to this district of shabby wooden buildings.

Tsukiji is Tokyo’s reverse image. There are no girls tottering by, weighed down with carrier bags, rushing suited businessmen trailing cigarette smoke, no slouching hatted hip-hoppers trying to create an air of cool.This is Tokyo’s hidden side, part of its engine room. It brings to mind the bathhouse in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, a parallel universe obeying its own rules.

We walk towards what might be an entrance, trying to second-guess the tuc-tucs whose crazily unpredictable routes seem to always bisect our path.The impression is that they would drive through you, not to assert their rights of way but because the drivers can’t see beings from another dimension. Have we ceased to exist?

Maybe not. One stops beside us. The tiny driver, dirty bandana tied around his bald head. “Visitors!”he cackles. “Come with me!” and gestures for us to climb onto the back of the vehicle. He gives the thumbs up and, like Ben Hur on his chariot, we race over the ruts to the doors of a concrete building. He hands us a map, grins his toothless smile and flies off, the spirit of the place.

Inside is a tuna morgue. Two rooms filled with rime-covered corpses, dry ice fringing the curved bellies, eyes cut out, guts gone, their tails cut off, red kanji characters painted on their iced skin like blood. Men in baseball caps and thick jackets wander around, their trousers stuffed into boots. In their hands they carry little picks which wouldn’t look out of place behind the Park Hotel’s bar. They move from fish to fish, stoop, use the pick to hack some flesh from the tail and rub it between their fingers.

Quite how they determine quality from this who can tell. Yoichi tells me it’s to do with the fat, but that’s the same as me standing in front of a spirit safe and saying I know when to make the cut. It’s one thing to know the principles, but you can never fully understand the process because it is something which has long become intuitive. This, like whisky-making, is a skill passed down through generations to a point where it occupies a middle ground between work and craft.

Bells ring and the auctioneers stand on their rickety blue painted wooden stools. One chants, one talks, one raps. It’s hard not to start dancing. Somehow deals are being made: an eyebrow raised, a drop of cigarette ash, a finger, a wink. We stand, still invisible, unable to work out what’s being sold and for how much. Even Yoichi can’t tell. There’s a different language spoken here.

The bought fish are sold like giant curling stones and hauled onto carts which disappear into the market. We follow and immediately collide with a barrow of yellowtail, their skin a cool blue gleam in the dark. The sea has come to Tokyo. Fish of every species and size, urchins being shelled, sea creatures in tanks, giant scallops, octopuses arranged like exotic blossoms.

We pass a tuna salesman using an unfeasibly large knife to carve bloody pyramids of quivering flesh. The hidden chain is almost complete: fishermen to wholesaler to trader to chef. It’s just like the chains within whisky: farmer to maltster to distiller to warehouseman to blender to buyer to consumer. Hidden worlds, hidden layers.

The sky is lightening as we head to Tsukiji Sushi Sen to complete our own chain and start a new one. I’m not quite sure what the responsible drinking brigade in the UK would say to sampling whisky at 6.30am but we look on it as work and derive no pleasure from this onerous task, honest.

A quick warming sake and to work. There’s four whiskies and endless, superbly fresh sushi.The principles [see box] begin to emerge as the sun start rising. Flat fish such as Hirami or Ingawa have a buttery texture (and flavour) which unsurprisingly goes well with whiskies with American oak character (in this case, Benriach) giving a new caramel like sweetness. Then, the malt’s spiciness adds another dimension leading into the prickling of the palate-cleansing ginger. The end result is texture and flavours working together.

The rigid feel of Ika needed the oiliness of Caol Ila to soften while the whisky added a smokily sweet dimension. It was Caol Ila which provided the star pairing with Kani Miso whose intense saltiness met the marine character of the whisky and exploded in the mouth.This was more than just identical flavours meeting and more about complexities being built, the oiliness of the whisky added a sliding element. It was like plunging headlong into the sound of Islay. There’s talk of moving Tsukiji to a new site, somewhere more hygienic apparently. It’s no different in London whose great inner-city markets have been pushed out to the margins. Who wants these noisy, messy, working class places in the middle of prime real estate? As they are shifted however the already barely visible will become invisible and the link between fishermen and consumer will be broken entirely.Your fish might as well be built by a supermarket computer.

As we head back to the hotel the moon is dying in the bright sky, Fuji lit by the pink dawn. Breakfasting guests look at us with a certain disdain as we walk into reception. Out of time again.

Experiments explained

Two months after the Tsukiji experiment,we repeated the exercise with a larger range of whiskies and even more sushi and the results were similarly positive.This time the real stars were Ikura and Caol Ila, every time an egg popped in the mouth the whisky changed.Uni worked very well with the light maltiness in Arran and the fattier fishes showed that they are great to pair with richer more sherried whiskies (as long as the dram isn’t too tannic).

Although the pairings were done with samples from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, we can draw some basic principles. To restrict this to a few specific drams would be totally impractical. Best then to break the whiskies into five flavour camps:

Arran = slightly malty, hint of citrus (1)
Glen Ord = grassy and soft (2)
Benriach = sweet and spicy (3)
Balmenach = rich and fruity (4)
Caol Ila = oily, smoky and salty (5)

The conclusion is that styles 3 and 5 are the most versatile styles to match with sushi, though 1 and 4 have an important role to play.

Hirami (plaice) 3
Uni (sea urchin) 1
Ika (squid) 5
Hotate (scallop) 4
Anago (sea eel) 3 (if w/yuzu)/1
Kani Miso (crab brain) 5
Kohada (pickled herring) X stick to sake or beer
Ingawa (fin fillet of flatfish) 3
Kajiki (fatty stripped marlin) 4
Sayori (needle fish) 2/3
Tako (octopus) 5/4
Kobashira (small scallop) 3/1
Aka-kai (red clam) 2
Ebi (shrimp) 5
Maguro (tuna) 3
Cyu-toro (fatty tuna) 4
Ikura (salmon egg) 5
Hamaguri (big boiled clam) 1
Tamago (egg) 1-5