Keeping Kosher at the Tsukiji Fish Market

The Tsukiji Fish Market

Have you ever visited the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, Japan?

Kosher Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo
Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo

I haven’t either, but it’s the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. I came across it while reading “KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL
Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” by Anthony Bourdain, and it certainly gave me some (fish) food for thought….

To get some perspective on the place – it houses 900 wholesale dealers, over 60,000 workers, 400 types of fish weighing 700,000 tons,  and the stuff is valued at over 5.9 BILLION DOLLARS !!!

Tsukiji Fresh Tuna Auction - Kosher Tsukiji fish market
Tsukiji Fresh Tuna Auction

That’s a lot of fish…even more than they served at a fancy Jewish wedding with the huge baked salmon centerpiece on the smorgasbord… 🙂

So lets say you are in Japan and get an invitation to tour the famous fish market to watch the tuna auctions (they generally allow only wholesalers). You want to buy a succulent slab of the best fresh tuna in the Far East and broil it on a BBQ in the garden of your hotel. Can you or can’t you buy the tuna at the market (pardon the pun…)? Can you ask the seller to clean, slice or filet the fish? After all, among the 400 types of seafood sold there, a large part are not for the Kosher palate…maybe one can’t buy Kosher fish in a non-Kosher store?

This question brings me to the basic premise of our blog. Keeping a Kosher lifestyle far from home and away from a Jewish community doesn’t mean you need to go hungry. You can get plenty of products to fill your dietary needs without any Kosher certification. You can get proteins, carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables from a vast selection of the local markets without seeing even one little Kosher symbol on the product (with some basic ground-rules of course).

Fins and Scales

Take fish from Tsukiji for example. What makes a fish Kosher? According to our tradition any fish with Fins and Scales is Kosher and you can buy it anywhere in the world. Fish with Fins but not Scales in non-Kosher. Fish with Scales is guaranteed to have also Fins (even if the fins were removed and you don’t see them at the store). This restriction still allows you a huge selection to choose from. To get an idea see Rabbi Eidlitz’s list of Kosher and non-Kosher Fish. I haven’t even heard of many of the Kosher types, never mind eating them…

What kind of scales?

The principal types of scales are the cycloid scales of salmon and carp, the ctenoid scales of perch, the placoid scales of sharks and rays, the ganoid scales of sturgeons and gars. Only ctenoid and cycloid scales are valid according to the Torah. Gandoid and placoid are not. The scales must be true scales that can be removed without damaging the skin of the fish. Bony tubercles and plate or thorn-like scales that can be removed only by removing part of the skin are not considered scales in this context.  (if you’re interested in scaling the topic further, see Wikipedia – Fish Scale).

Seafood

Seafood such as shellfish, prawns, shellfish, crabs, octopus, lobster, and shrimp aren’t Kosher. Neither are mammals (such as whales and dolphins).

Caviar

Only the eggs of kosher fish, such as salmon roe or caviar, are allowed. Russian Beluga caviar comes from the sturgeon which has scales but of the Gandoid type, which aren’t Kosher.

Cutting and cleaning fish

Although fish with fins and scales are 100% Kosher, care must be taken whether buying fresh, whole fish, filleted, or frozen, because of the possibility of substitution by non-kosher fish or of contamination by remnants of non-kosher fish from knives and cutting boards. This is correct even for fish which has not been processed beyond cutting and cleaning. Concerning fish filet, it is necessary to personally see the scales on the fish, or at least the indentations in the skin where the scales were before they were removed. One cannot rely only on the word of the seller that it’s a Kosher species of fish.

This brings me down memory lane, when I lived for some time in Western Europe. There weren’t very many Kosher food establishments in the area, so I bought fresh fish at the local market. I was very concerned that the fish monger would clean and slice my Kosher fish with a knife he used minutes before on some octopus or lobster, so I arrived at the market carrying my knife from home.

Since I had no idea what was needed I bought this little $10 vegetable knife and asked him to clean and cut my fish with it “for religious reasons”. He roared with laughter and trying to explain in broken English that he was used to  much better equipment and if I expected this extra service I’d have to invest some more money on a knife.

To his credit he still cleaned, fileted and cut the fish with my tiny blade, muttering and shaking his head the whole time. I guess he had respect for other faiths. Next time I came with a $150 professional knife and never had a problem getting my fish prepared with it.

BTW if you ever get stuck without a Kosher knife at the fish market you should ask the fish monger to thoroughly wash the knife and board that he will use to slice and fillet the fish and then at home you should wash the area that was cut and scrape it off with a knife to remove any non-kosher residue.

Processed fish

Fish which has been processed in any way by smoking, pickling, cooking, frying or baking needs strict Kosher supervision, both because of the extra ingredients and processing equipment and because of who is doing the cooking.

Bottom line, with a little effort and awareness you can enjoy a delicious meal of the finest fish from the Tsukiji market…as long as you cook it in your own kitchen of course.

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