Chef versus tuna: Finding the best cut

Chef Nakagawa Takahiro of Kuriya battles a Pacific bluefin tuna in an awesome demonstration of his cutting skills.

Chef Nakagawa Takahiro may have been garnering word-of-mouth reputation among Bangsar diners for his delightful kaiseki offerings at the KL branch of Kuriya. But with 28 years of experience in the food industry, it's not just cooking that he does well.

The 50-year-old Osaka native has recently been featuring on local food blogs as the star of Kuriya's ongoing campaign to promote the restaurant's super-fresh air-flown seafood.

The campaign's gimmick is simple yet awesome: Watch Nakagawa battle a Pacific bluefin tuna. While chef demonstrations are common enough, witnessing one slash a whole tuna down to size is something else.

For one, the fish is huge. Requiring the brawn of three grown men to carry it to the weighing scale onstage, the approximately 1.2m-long specimen flown in from Japan especially for the June 28 demonstration at the restaurant in Bangsar Shopping Centre checked in at a respectable 43kg.

Even at this size, however, it's still only a juvenile. In May this year, Donna Pascoe, a 56-year-old New Zealander, reeled in the largest Pacific bluefin ever caught. It was 411kg. But that wasn't even the biggest tuna we know of.

In 1979, Ken Fraser reeled in a 678kg Atlantic bluefin, a record that still stands as the largest tuna ever caught.

Weighing done, Chef Nakagawa then joins the fish on stage, to a round of applause from the audience of about 30 - who each paid RM100 for the privilege to view the cutting demonstration and sample the tuna afterwards. As introductory remarks wind to a close, he pats the fish with a Good Morning towel and begins the show.

Laying the fish first on its side with its dorsal facing him, he lifts a gill-flap and plunges in the knife, which looks fearsomely sharp. One side done, he flips the fish over and repeats the cut.

A barely audible "waaah" can be heard as the tuna's head comes off and mobile phone cameras zoom in.

The story of bluefin

Though revered as a delicacy now, Bluefin tuna's rise to the upper echelons of Japanese cuisine was a fairly recent phenomenon.

According to food journalist Trevor Corson in his book, The Story of Sushi (2007), the Japanese used to abhor bluefin tuna. Samurais regarded the fish as "unclean" and refused to eat it while connoisseurs of sashimi sneered at it as though it were catfood, which it was actually processed into up until the 1960s. For centuries, bluefin tuna was the food of Japanese labourers looking for a cheap meal.

In the 1970s, however, with the rising popularity of US-introduced beef to the Japanese palate, attitudes towards bluefin tuna made a dramatic turn.

Improved refrigeration techniques also meant that raw seafood suffered less spoilage and imported seafood could be flown in from far away and still taste fresh.

At the same time, the practice of eating sushi found success in the US. Apparently, the inclusion of avocado into the cone-shaped "California roll" was meant to imitate the fatty cut of the tuna.

Thanks to America's embrace of sushi, the trend spread across the world and by the end of the decade, the bluefin renaissance was in full swing.

Demand for bluefin tuna is higher than ever - especially in Japan, where consumers eat up to 80 per cent of world's bluefin catch. At the world-famous Tsukiji market in Tokyo, the early morning tuna auctions are all bluefin, and the prices they sell for can be mind-boggling.

In January 2013, a Pacific bluefin weighing 222kg was auctioned off for 155.4mil yen (S$1.90 million), breaking the record for the world's most expensive fish ever sold - for a bite-size breakdown, that's nearly RM22,000 for a kilo of fish. The previous record, set the year before at the same market, was also for a bluefin.

While the record-breaking sales show how crazy the craze for tuna has become, it has also led to the global crisis over the bluefin's uncertain future.

The three species of bluefin tuna - Pacific (Thunnus orientalis), Atlantic (Thunnus thynnus) and Southern (Thunnus macoyii) - are all under threat. Pacific numbers are less than half of what they were three decades ago while the Atlantic population has been decimated by up to 80 per cent. Worse still are Southern bluefins - down to 3 per cent to 8 per cent of their original numbers.

Despite international quotas on bluefin tuna fishing, the ever-increasing demand and lax enforcement has encouraged fishermen all over the world to continue reeling in what's left. Some wildlife conservation experts say that if the current fishing rates continue, there may not be any left in the oceans in as little as five to 10 years.

For the conscientious connoisseur

The Pacific bluefin tuna that serves to demonstrate Chef Nakagawa's cutting skills, however, is farmed tuna.

Senior restaurant manager Frankie Foo, who assured the audience of this fact, was proud to say that Kuriya, and other outlets under its Singapore-based parent company RE & S International, only serve farmed Pacific bluefin tuna. In this case, the fish was sourced from the Nagasaki prefecture, where 40 such farms exist.

While farmed bluefin stocks can't yet fulfil the ravenous demands of every single tuna lover, it is by far the more conscientious choice. It definitely makes watching the tuna cutting demonstration less worrying.

Definitely not for the squirmish nor the animal lover, watching Nakagawa reduce the fish with cuts that look so casually executed increases one's appreciation of the crimson and pink slivers of flesh that are served afterwards during the sampling.

Out of water and stone cold dead, this tuna simply stands no chance against Nakagawa. After removing its head, the chef uses an oversized takobiki knife to make a cut through the fish - starting from the belly to the tail to the dorsal fin - to separate the edges of the main flesh from the spine and vertical bone.

Next, with a V-shaped cut under the base of the dorsal fin that continued to the spine, followed with a cut along the lateral line of fish's body, the first of the two akami sections of the fish comes off. This is placed on a tray and shown off to the audience who cheer.

Ignoring the audience, chef begins on the corresponding belly side, and pretty soon that is off too.

With one half of the fish removed, chef next cuts away the spine and bone, leaving the other half. A few more cuts ... and it's done! Less than 20 minutes after the first cut, the demonstration is over. Why so fast? Because that's how an expert does it. (Actually, it was explained later that Nakagawa had in fact slowed down the action.) Now, on to the tasting!

Kuriya Japanese Restaurant, 3rd Floor, Bangsar Shopping Centre, 285 Jalan Maarof, Kuala Lumpur. Tel: 03-2093 9242