Fukaura making name for itself through tuna

AOMORI - "Would you like to try a 'tuna cutlet dog' made with Fukaura tuna?"

At an outdoor music festival in the city of Aomori in late September, a refreshment area was organised at the port of New Central Pier.

Amid the rows of food stalls offering local gourmet cuisine from around the country was a cart with a fluttering sign reading "Fukaura Tuna."

"Fukaura is known for its tuna? I didn't know that," said an Aomori housewife, 65, lining up at the cart. "It looks good, so I'll give it a try." The day's stock of 1,000 servings was moving steadily, and sold out by the end of the event.

Tuna cutlet dog is like a hot dog but filled with tuna, a local specialty of Fukaura town.

The fish is minced and fried, and seasoned with a salty-sweet sauce containing miso paste. This innovative dish won the "Fukaura Tuna Cuisine Grand Prix" held in the town in June.

Big fish in small pond

Of the prefecture's tuna, those from Oma town are particularly prized across the nation. But in terms of catch volume, Fukaura leads by an overwhelming margin.

The town's catch for 2013 came in at 480 tons - nearly 2 and a half times that of Oma - and accounted for nearly half of the prefectural total of about 1,040 tons, according to the prefecture.

The situation is reversed when it comes to sales, with Oma's tuna worth almost double that of Fukaura. With its name recognition, Oma tuna sells for high prices, whereas Fukaura tuna is cheap.

The fish caught in Fukaura are the same bluefin tuna as those caught in Oma.

They are caught while migrating north toward Oma, so their season is a month or two earlier than in Oma. Fukaura tuna are also smaller, with a slighter frame and somewhat less fat, so the Fukaura fishing industry has advertised it as having "the real flavor of tuna."

Fukaura is currently on an all-out mission to reinvent itself as a tuna town.

One individual behind the genesis of that mission is "Maguro Suzuki" (real name: Jiro Suzuki; "maguro" is Japanese for tuna), a 42-year-old employee of the municipal government's tourism section.

The nickname was given to him by the Fukaura mayor himself.

In 2011, Maguro heard that Recruit's Hiro Nakata, who had launched a campaign for local gourmet dishes around Japan, would be coming to the city of Aomori to give a talk.

Maguro spoke to him there and invited him to Fukaura.

Under Nakata's guidance, Maguro established the Fukaura Tuna Cuisine Promotion Council together with members of the town's food service industry.

In March 2014, the council won a nationwide local gourmet competition with the "Fukaura tuna steak don," a bowl of rice topped with sashimi steak.

The dish was offered at seven restaurants around the town, with more than 57,000 servings sold.

Maguro reflects, "I did it just because I wanted to make Fukaura tuna a household name in all of Japan."

Factory plans unveiled

There is also a private project in the works in Fukaura that has surprised even Maguro.

In October, a local agricultural and marine product company started construction on a large-scale processing plant to freeze and store tuna, with a total project cost of 400 million yen (S$4.4 million).

Aomori Kaisan Co., lead by company President Seiji Horiuchi, plans to begin operations by the fiscal year-end.

Tuna will be sliced at the processing plant, then deep-frozen at minus 55 C. The firm aims to expand the customer base into areas like Tokyo by being able to provide fish hearts and other rare parts at any time of the year.

In terms of brand strength, Oma looms large and is still a step or two ahead. But such joint public-private initiatives appear to have united all of Fukaura in spirit.