The Fish That Got Away
Check out our interactive graphic of fish from the Gulf of Mexico and their sushi counterparts. You can also see a video of chef Brandon Fisch preparing a fish ike jime style.
Last year, PJ Stoops, a fishmonger with Louisiana Foods, persuaded a Gulf fisherman to process a few flounder for sushi, then brought the sashimi-grade fish to a handful of lucky restaurants in town.
One recipient was Jason Hauck, executive chef at Soma Sushi. Hauck served the flounder as a simple preparation, topping soft bundles of vinegared rice with the tender cuts of buttery, pearl-colored fish.
"These unbelievable flounder that had been caught out of either Louisiana or Texas waters," says Hauck. "It was the most amazing flounder you've ever seen come out of the Gulf. You've never seen anything like it."
The sushi made with local flounder was featured on the daily-specials side of Hauck's menu of authentic Japanese dishes made with local products, and it sold out quickly. But, says Hauck, "There wasn't very many fish." In fact, those few pounds of flounder were probably the only sushi-grade fish to come out of the Gulf last year.
Not that there isn't a market for sushi in Houston. Soma Sushi is just one of more than 200 sushi restaurants here, a number that grows every year. According to The NPD Group, American diners ordered more than 230 million servings of sushi in the year ending in November 2010, a 5 percent increase just from the year before.
In our backyard — the Gulf of Mexico — nearly 1,500 varieties of finfish flourish in the salty waters, waters that produce some of the world's most delicious seafood. But no one in the Gulf is processing the fish they catch for sushi. No one is performing ike jime, as the Japanese call it, on their fish.
At a time when locavorism is emphasized at every available turn, when the exhortative slogan "Stay Local, Grow Together!" posts up in every coffee shop and cocktail bar, the odds that the little pieces of snapper-topped nigirizushi you're eating came from the Gulf of Mexico are slim to none. Instead, it's imported from all over the world — Alaska, Hawaii, Spain and Japan.
Jason Hauck doesn't think the situation makes sense. "We would love to be able to get more fish out of the Gulf. Pristine fish do come out, but it's still not the same," he says. "Since I got to Houston ten years ago, I wondered, 'There's these great fish that come out of the Gulf, but how come nothing is sushi-grade?'"
The fish thrashes and struggles mightily like the predator it is when 25-year-old chef Brandon Fisch removes it from the water, working its way out of his hand at one point and madly flopping to the ground. It's a fluke, or a summer flounder, whose skin resembles sand and glittering pebbles, and whose two eyes are both on one side of its fine, flat head. The fluke is determined to put up a fight.
That is, until Fisch spikes it quickly through its small brain with a needle-like silver pick. The fish's mouth gapes open suddenly, revealing two rows of tiny, sharp teeth. Its fins expand and stiffen.
"It's dead now," Fisch says.
Fisch was most recently at Yelapa Playa Mexicana, turning out some of the city's most remarkable ceviches, whose clean flavors he attributes to performing his own makeshift version of ike jime on the fish. Now, he gets down to work.
Ike jime is a delicate, centuries-old art form, and refers to the method in which the fish is both killed and stored after having been caught. The point of ike jime is to bleed out a fish as quickly as possible after death. The ike jime fish aren't gutted; they're left whole and pristine, a shining example of the skill of the men who processed them.
Fisch is demonstrating how the process works on the fluke we purchased only an hour ago from Korean grocery store Super H Mart. "There are three different styles of ike jime," he says. "But the most technical style is when you take the fish, catch it, pull it in the boat, cut where the gills are almost all the way to the bone, where you're almost de-heading the fish."
He cuts swiftly along the gills, nearly severing the head, but stopping just shy of the spinal column on either side. Its major arteries have now been severed, save for the tail, which is next. At the caudal peduncle, Fisch cuts through the spine but leaves the tail itself still barely attached to the flounder; it forms a handle this way.
This is incredibly useful for the next step: running a length of strong metal wire up the flounder's spinal cord to both destroy its neural system and create a pathway for the blood to flow out. As soon as Fisch removes the wire, he puts the flounder gently back into its slurry of ice water, and the fish's blood seeps quickly out of the hole left by the metal wire.
"You give it a runway, so to speak, for the blood to flow out the back," Fisch says. "Blood is full of impurities and all the things they've eaten. It's also full of flavor, but in red meat — not in fish. Not in seafood."
In 30 minutes, the fish is completely exsanguinated. The ice slurry has worked its magic, too, pulling out the rest of the blood that didn't flow easily from the flounder's wounds. The water is a soft copper color; the fish's flesh has turned nearly translucent, with the faintest blue tips around its pearly edges. Fisch begins to carve up the flounder, producing four beautiful filets in quick succession. The entire process is over almost as quickly as it had begun.
"Ike jime in a fish increases the shelf life of that fish by two days without changing the flavor of it," explains Fisch later.
Although the technique both preserves the fish for longer and encourages a better flavor to develop in it — both directly after being caught and over time, as it's allowed to rest and age — it's virtually unheard of in the United States.
You can certainly judge the quality of a sushi restaurant based upon whether or not the "chef" has heard of the practice. But aside from that, it's barely mentioned in totemic books such as On Food and Cooking, where Harold McGee spends plenty of time describing an almost identical process in slaughtering cows and pigs but never once mentions fish in this regard. Ditto in The Food Lover's Companion, an otherwise highly useful and highly regarded compendium of cooking terminology.
Even on YouTube, a repository where you can find roughly 16,000 completely unique video tutorials on how to draw eyeliner or knit a beer koozie, there is only a scant handful of videos on ike jime. In one, chefs Dave Arnold and Nils Noren perform a haphazard ike jime demonstration in front of a baffled crowd at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. A commenter on the video called it "amateurish," prompting the duo to respond with "You're welcome to come in and show us how it's done."
So it comes as no surprise, really, that the few people in Houston who practice ike jime on their fish — like Stoops and Fisch — had to teach themselves. "It's something I read about, and I wanted to find out further information about it. That's how half the cooking happens in Houston," says Fisch. He admits that his process is perhaps a bit rough and imprecise, but, he says, it's "the only way for us to do it."
Rough-catching — the typical Gulf fishing method — is useless for sushi, not to mention other raw preparations that have become increasingly popular, such as the ceviches, tiraditos, kinilaws or crudos seen on so many restaurant menus these days.
"Most of the fish that are harvested are commodity fish," says Stoops, who, besides being a fishmonger with Louisiana Foods, is a lifelong Gulf fisherman. "They're not harvested in small amounts — snapper, drum, flounder, what have you — it's always been about volume."
And catching in volume means that the fish are left suffocating and full of blood, lactic acid building up and making the flesh too soft, too fishy-tasting to be used for anything other than cooking: grilling, broiling or frying.
Seafood is a $65 billion-per-year industry in the United States, and the per capita consumption of fish increases every year, according to the National Fisheries Institute. But while seafood sales have declined overall in the last year, the sale and consumption of sushi has not. In fact, the consumption of sushi was up 4 percent over the last year, according to Nation's Restaurant News.
"Today," writes Sasha Issenberg in The Sushi Economy, sushi is "found in nearly every city in the United States, where it's sold out of the deli case at supermarket counters, as a snack at baseball stadiums, and as part of a $350 omakase lunch at New York's Masa."
Sushi is becoming increasingly popular locally, too. Up the road in Austin, Chef Tyson Cole is busy winning James Beard Foundation Awards for his work at world-renowned sushi restaurant Uchi. A second location of Uchi is set to open soon in the old Felix location here at Montrose and Westheimer, and the first Texas location of the ultra-high-end Katsuya by Starck — a Los Angeles-based sushi restaurant from celebrity sushi chef Katsuya Uechi and designer Philippe Starck — is opening early next year.
Even non-Japanese restaurants are branching into sushi. As recently as the last month, Philippe Schmidt was offering pieces of nigirizushi for appetizers, playing off a portion of the menu at his namesake restaurant, Philippe, that offers "au naturel" tartares of salmon and tuna.
And diners are eager to learn about sushi, taking classes from grocery stores like Central Market or restaurants like RA Sushi on how to construct their own hand rolls at home.
"There's a big profit," says Carl Rosa, founder of the Sushi Club of Houston and the Japan-America Initiative. "Sushi makes a lot of money."
Stoops, whose role in the local seafood business is essentially that of a middleman, says that if he could get sushi-grade flounder for Houston restaurants from his fishermen, he could pay, say, $1.25 a pound as opposed to rough-caught flounder that he'd buy for only 25 cents a pound — a potential quintupling of income.
Flounder isn't the only fish in the Gulf that could easily be used in sushi preparations if only it were harvested correctly: There's red snapper as tai, flounder as hirame, Spanish mackerel as saba, amberjack or cobia as hamachi, tuna as toro.
But Gulf fisherman aren't going to start fishing for a market that doesn't exist.
"The Japanese deem the Gulf of Mexico to be a toilet," says Carl Rosa. "Even though that's absolutely unfair."
Over a simple meal of saba and tamago nigirizushi and tempura at Zushi one quiet afternoon, Rosa is explaining the severe image problem the Gulf of Mexico has abroad. Rosa's background in Japanese culture and cuisine is as extensive as his roots along the Gulf Coast; the New Orleans native was the former executive director for the Japan-America Society and currently works with a number of local Japanese restaurants on making their traditional menus more accessible to Americans.
What's ironic is that Japanese longline fishing vessels once navigated our waters, the 200-foot-long vessels pulling in bluefin and yellowfin tuna. On board, the fish were quickly processed and flash-frozen for transport back to Japan. International fishing laws have made these Japanese fishing fleets more or less obsolete in recent years, but our waters were considered attractive hunting grounds as recently as the late 1970s, according to an 1979 article from Marine Fisheries Review.
It isn't just the Japanese who have misconceptions about the Gulf. Ask any sports fisherman about eating Gulf fish raw, and most of them will laugh at you. And even among those who venture past the warm, muddy waters on the continental shelf and out into the deep, cold ocean, there is an idea that the Gulf is dirty.
There's also the issue of parasites and bacteria. Fishermen and chefs alike are convinced that Gulf fish are swarming with deadly microbes — deadlier, for some unknown reason, than all of the other microbes everywhere else.
"I guarantee that in other fish swimming in the Pacific or even off the coast of Hokkaido, there are parasites," Rosa laughs. "I mean, of course there are parasites. They're not swimming in Ozarka water!"
PJ Stoops has eaten his Gulf catches raw his entire life and never suffered any ill effects. "There's bacteria everywhere in the world — it's inconsequential," he says. "The FDA doesn't consider [Gulf fish] hazardous or that they shouldn't be eaten raw — there's no real reason it's not an intrinsically good product."
Anyway, Stoops says, "Several types of parasites are of interest to the FDA, and the really nasty ones are found in cold saltwater — like nematodes — but they don't cause a long-term problem. You can't get an infestation of worms like you could from eating wild salmon raw."
That's right: Those wild-caught salmon that everyone is so fond of carry a dangerous, mammal-dwelling parasite that can only be killed by freezing. And yet we eat it. In fact, salmon (along with tuna) is the most popular fish in any given sushi restaurant, its extremely fatty flesh easy for even novice sushi "chefs" to cut. Mackerel — an equally popular fish, especially in Japan — also contains parasites, but Japanese sushi chefs serve it raw regardless.
Another hurdle of perception is the almost ingrained idea that fish from the "warm" waters of the Gulf of Mexico wouldn't be fatty enough. It's true that mackerel and salmon are popular because they're fatty, and they're not found in the Gulf. It's also true that the colder the water, the fattier the fish.
But there are plenty of extraordinary fish dwelling in the deep, blue, breathtakingly clear waters off the continental shelf. "If we feel really hot, we try to get cold. So do the fish; they go to cold water," says Shinobu Maeda, a 20-year veteran sushi chef who works at Louisiana Foods with Stoops. "The fish know where to live."
Bluefin tuna can dive to icy depths 3,000 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf, depths that require the tuna to be fatty to protect itself from the cold. That tuna is extraordinary.
And, in fact, so is the fish from "warmer" waters: snapper, flounder, amberjack. It doesn't have to come out of cold waters to be eaten raw. "I don't think the temperature of the water matters in the Gulf," says Maeda.
To Rosa, the Gulf's image problem is ridiculous. "I don't care what anyone says," he says as we finish our lunch. "Growing up in New Orleans, when I had Blue Point oysters and blue claw crab, my eyes would roll back in my head they were so good."
"It's worthy. Gulf seafood is worthy."
Sushi is one of the things that Manabu Horiuchi does best. The executive chef at Kata Robata, Hori-san (a title of respect) is regarded as one of the best sushi chefs in the city. He began his career as a sushi chef over 20 years ago, in Tokyo, and was brought to Houston to serve at the Japanese consulate. Eventually, he left the consulate to work at Kubo's, before moving on to Kata Robata, where I spoke to him one rare quiet afternoon.
Between stealing supervisory glances back at the men cutting fish at his sushi bar, Hori-san eyed me with quizzical bemusement between services as I questioned him on whether he would ever consider using Gulf-caught fish at that sushi bar. Like Hori-san, Kata Robata is also widely regarded as the best in town. And Hori-san only serves the best fish he can buy: ike jime fish.
"We don't use Gulf fish for the sushi," he said. "We can't get fresh fish in Houston, so most of our fish is come from Japan. Gulf fishermen and the seafood companies don't know how to maintain sashimi-grade fish.
"A lot of different ike jime fish in Japan, but in Houston...nobody," says Hori-san.
Gulf fishermen aren't going to enter the sushi arena if they don't see a demand for it. And they aren't going to take up an entirely new career path out of the blue, one that would involve learning an entirely new technique and retrofitting their already profitable boats.
"Fishermen here, their existence can be precarious," says PJ Stoops. "Certain fish are always worth money, and they'll always be able to make the money off the fish they're used to, so why take the extra time?"
"It's very hard work day in and day out," agreed Jason Hauck. "It's a hard living, it's something that you grow up into. And it can't be just one guy going down there trying to convince these gruff seamen. There has to be a bit more of a movement behind it. They have to see that it's going to be rewarding for them." But Hauck has an idea that could create a supply chain.
"I think a proof of demand to the fishermen would be the starting point. Without a doubt, the Gulf is losing a revenue stream of hard dollars by not harvesting sushi-grade fish. It's the only area I can think of where sushi-grade fish is not being harvested. Atlantic and Pacific both. You would think that the Japanese would have their hands in the waters for sushi-grade fish."
Hauck suggests a community-supported agriculture, or CSA-style, program, in which fishermen would be guaranteed an amount of money up front — say, $3,000 — for hauling in a load of ike jime fish. He compares it to the local Wood Duck Farm, whose CSA programs fill up quickly, with a large network of local restaurants and individuals committing to buying a designated portion of produce, meat and/or eggs each season for a set price, paid up front. The restaurants are guaranteed farm-fresh fruits and vegetables for an entire season, and Wood Duck Farm is guaranteed both buyers and an income from the first day of each season. "Something like that would be a good stepping stone," Hauck says.
As for getting patrons to eat it, Carl Rosa has an idea, one true to his New Orleans roots: lagniappe. Start with just a tiny shipment of sushi-grade Gulf-caught mackerel, he says. Take a small snippet and provide it to diners on their plate alongside the regular sushi or sashimi they've ordered that night, and briefly explain its provenance.
"Give them a little bitty piece and just say, 'Try that.' And they'll say, 'Oh, that's really, really good!'' Tell them, 'So the next time you come in, order a piece.'"
As dedicated as he is to Japanese fish, Hori-san is game to offer Gulf sushi-grade fish in his restaurant. "If we have ike jime fish in local market, of course I'm going to buy it. Definitely I'm going to buy it."
But Hori-san is wary of alienating diners who, he says, come in and order "four piece salmon, four piece tuna," and are uninterested in experimenting with anything other than what they consider "typical" sushi.
There's an irony here, one that doesn't escape author Sasha Issenberg, who writes: "What most Americans (and Japanese, too) would think of as the Platonic ideal of the 'authentic' and the 'traditional' sushi experience — a fatty, pink slice of toro nigiri served by a chef to a customer seated before him — is in fact no older than the California roll." Lean fish like flounder and red snapper were initially far more popular.
Even more ironic is the popularity of toro, or bluefin tuna, which only a few short decades ago was regarded as a trash fish. The average price for bluefin tuna has now risen by more than 10,000 percent. Tuna has become such a commodity, in fact, that there is an enormous market for catching fish that merely resemble it. Hawaii was recently busy catching almaco jack — the exact same fish that's common in Gulf waters — and selling it at a premium, marketed as "Kona Kampachi," an alternative to the dwindling supplies of wild-caught bluefin tuna.
"Sushi's history shows a foodstuff always in flux, remaking itself over centuries due to shifting pressures of economics and culture," writes Issenberg. So history gives hope that diners might come to embrace Gulf-caught sushi-grade fish with time.
If the local industry were to keep a significant portion of processing and sales instead of having to work through the Tokyo fish markets, where traders pay over $6 billion — not million, billion — a year for fish, it would be an economic boon not only for Gulf fishermen, but for the entire Gulf Coast.
Jason Hauck thinks it's possible. "I mean, look around Houston: You can throw a stone in any direction and hit a sushi restaurant," he says. "I think there's enough industry here to support fishermen doing this."
And if they did, Houston wouldn't be paying to have fish shipped and flown in from all over the world. "It's imported into the Gulf — why aren't we exporting?" asks Brandon Fisch. "I'm not trying to make ourselves big or make it so that we're some powerhouse fishery. I like it that we're a small fishery that has these amazing fish, but why doesn't anyone else know about it?"
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