The One That Almost Got Away

How Boston bluefin tuna became one of the world’s most obsessively coveted and extravagantly expensive foods—and why, decades later, you can finally eat it here.

These days, the height of culinary opulence in Boston just might be an omakase tasting at Oishii in the South End. Chef Ting San treats diners who take a seat at his sushi bar to a steady parade of small dishes, like thinly sliced snapper topped with lemony shiso blossoms, and cuts of Kobe beef accompanied by a 500-degree hot stone to cook them on. But the real reason people fork over $135 for seven tiny plates is the toro, the marbled meat that comes from the belly of a tuna. On any given night in Oishii’s starkly chic dining room, it’s presented in a variety of ways, depending on the chef’s mood—with rice as pieces of nigiri, alone as sashimi, cut into robust dice and served with caviar and two types of Japanese citrus, or in scraps tossed with miso, wasabi, and a gingerlike root called myoga. Lucky diners might even get to taste San’s signature creation: seared toro sandwiched between thin brown-rice wafers and crowned, fittingly, with a filament of gold leaf.

In Japan, the tuna that often makes up the dishes on San’s menu is known—regardless of where it was landed, or the jurisdiction from which it was shipped—as Boston no kuro-maguro, or Boston bluefin. If tuna in general is the “diamond of the ocean,” as the Japanese author Takeaki Hori has described it, then this variety, formally known as the Atlantic bluefin, is the most precious. The cold waters these trophy fish cruise (New England has historically been the most bountiful provider of Atlantic bluefin, though it is caught all along the eastern seaboard, from North Carolina to Nova Scotia) cause them to acquire layers of fat, which gives their meat the rich, silky flavor it is prized for. Tokyo chefs are used to paying $100 per pound for the stuff.

And yet despite its high value in Japan—and the eye-popping prices it now fetches at Oishii—Boston bluefin was, until a generation ago, almost entirely ignored in the place that gave it its name. While New Englanders have long treasured local cod, lobster, and clams, for years the only thing harder than catching a giant bluefin was getting rid of one. Old-timers measured the market value of the fish they caught in cents, the going per-pound rate paid by the canners who turned it into cat food. Most of the time, those who brought in bluefin would have to pay $20 to have their catch carted to the town dump or, after posing for pictures in the harbor, simply take the carcasses back out to sea for an ignominious burial. No restaurants or markets sold the fish, and locals who did eat it could often get it for free.

Angela Sanfilippo, the Sicilian-born president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, tells a pointed story about the bluefin’s humble beginnings. Walking along Gloucester’s Commercial Street wharf the day after getting back from her honeymoon in 1970, Sanfilippo and her new husband encountered a pleasure boat that had just come in with a 700-pound bluefin. “Do you know any Italian people that would like this tuna?” the captain asked. Sanfilippo called a few other families, and the fish was butchered on the spot. “We had a big feast on the wharf,” she recalls. Nearly 40 years later, a series of seemingly unconnected events have colluded to make a meal like the one Sanfilippo enjoyed a lot more expensive. Today, the same fish would cost around $10,000.

On August 14, 1972, at 5:15 a.m., fish buyers at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market began to bid on five Atlantic bluefin from Canada’s maritime provinces. At first, they were skeptical: The Japanese have always believed that their own local waters were the source of the world’s best seafood. Still, many couldn’t help but be impressed. The tuna, with their bullet-shaped silvery bodies, were larger—much larger—than those that arrived most mornings at the labyrinthine bazaar. When the auctioneer called out the winning bidder’s name, the fish had sold for the heady price of 1,200 yen per kilo, or about $18 per pound. The day became legend in the annals of sushi history as the “day of the flying fish”—in celebration of the long airborne journey the tuna had taken to get there.

That first Atlantic bluefin sale at Tsukiji was the result of a 16-month project by a Japan Airlines cargo manager, Akira Okazaki, a restless tinkerer who had been charged with rustling up new freight business. Earlier in his career, he had sought out domestic opportunities—in one experiment, he moved hairy crabs to Tokyo from northern Japan, only to fail to locate a shopkeeper willing to stock the frightful–looking crustaceans. Now Okazaki decided to look overseas for a product that would excite Japanese retailers and, more important, merit the considerable transport costs. He visited Tsukiji for inspiration, walking through the maze of vendors and considering salmon roe, sea bream, sea urchin, and ark shells. He realized only one fish would fit the bill: tuna.

A junior employee in JAL’s Toronto office alerted him to an untapped supply off Prince Edward Island. But they were vexed by the logistics and timing involved in transporting the fish more than 8,000 miles and delivering them, still fresh, to customers. It took Okazaki a year to figure it out: A Canadian fisherman caught and chilled a tuna, had local undertakers build a box for it, then retained a friend who owned a trucking company to haul it to New York for $1,000. The drive to New York lasted 30 hours, including a stop at the U.S. border for customs. At the JAL cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, another two hours were needed to pack the bluefin on ice for the 14-hour trip to Japan.

It turned out to be worth all the trouble. The early ’70s were the start of a generation-long binge for the Japanese economy that turned the capital into the gold-plated seat of a new gilded age. Just as Holland’s weakness for pretty flowers bloomed into a full-fledged mania for tulips in the 17th century, the old Japanese love for tuna was mixing with an infusion of fresh corporate wealth to transform tuna’s oily belly meat into the country’s greatest gustatory extravagance. By the early ’80s, high-end sushi bars like Naruto in Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood were hosting business dinners that regularly cost $350 per person, and Boston bluefin was an indispensable part of the menu. Since Atlantic tuna often reach the market weighing as much as 700 pounds, that offered a lot of toro to satiate Japanese cravings. And “it was basically toro that people paid attention to,” remembers Naruto chef Kazuyoshi Sato.

New England fishermen quickly came to appreciate Boston bluefin’s new popularity. The average price paid for the fish jumped from pennies in the 1960s to 36 cents per pound in 1973. Less than 20 years later, in 1991, the average daily high price paid by wholesalers for northern bluefin closed in on $36 per pound, with restaurants typically coughing up twice as much. All the while, the total catch remained more or less constant, at around 2 million pounds annually, so it wasn’t a shortage that was driving the price spike. What had changed was the product’s reach: The hearty American supply of bluefin and the ravenous Japanese demand for it had become linked. Over three decades, the Atlantic fisherman’s take for a bluefin tuna rose by 10,000 percent—a creation of value with little parallel in history.

The windfall transformed the New England docks into the sites of wheeling-and-dealing free-for-alls. In ports like Gloucester and Seabrook, furious bidding wars broke out, as representatives of Tsukiji auction houses handed thousands in cash to stunned anglers for their hauls. New fishermen were lured to the open water, and those who had been pursuing other species during tuna season, which lasts from early June to November, reconsidered their quarry. Lobstermen began to put down their traps and take up rods and reels, chasing lucrative catches on slow-moving dragger boats ill prepared for the task. Woodworkers who had previously repaired ships now turned to building the crates used to freight the new trophy export to Tokyo. Even Reverend Sun Myung Moon, leader of the cultish Moonies, got into the business, launching several boats out of Gloucester. (He gave a speech titled “The Way of the Tuna,” and called the fish vital to humanity’s prospects.) By the ’90s, the staid New England fishing community was ready to wager everything for the chance at a Japanese bluefin payday. As Danny Bubb, a prospector who arrived in Gloucester from Long Island with a giant tuna tattooed on his bicep, put it: “It’s a big boy’s game. I might lose money on five [tuna], break even on 10, and make money on 10, and I’m willing to do that.”

While Japan’s obsession with Boston bluefin fattened New England fishermen’s bank accounts, it all but froze out local small-time sushi devotees like Ting San, who, in 1997, had just opened his first Oishii, a little 14-seat spot in Chestnut Hill. One day, pleasure-boating with his children off Hyannis, San saw another fisherman pulling in a just-harpooned tuna. He eased his boat within shouting distance and hollered over to the lanky, mop-haired man, “How can I buy one like that from you?” It was a laughable request. Bob Kliss, the guy with the harpoon, made his living supplying the Japanese with Boston bluefin. Whereas San was used to paying a wholesaler $13 per pound for tuna of admittedly inconsistent quality, Kliss sold his catch in Tokyo, where chefs regularly offered seven times that. Still, Kliss, who was raised in Marblehead and earned an M.B.A. from Northeastern, took San’s information, in case anything came up. It was a prescient decision.

A year later, in 1998, the economic contagion known as the “Asian flu” spread across the continent. The market for bluefin tuna, which had remained resilient even as the Japanese economy began to slow and Tokyo real estate prices plummeted to one percent of their late-’80s high, finally took a hit. Consumer demand dried up, and buyers at Tsukiji came to the market with less and less cash to spend. The trickle-down effects were felt acutely, and almost immediately, in New England fishing towns. “All of a sudden, we woke up and the Japanese weren’t paying their $50 [per pound],” says former Gloucester City Councilman Vito Calomo.

Kliss, however, still had San’s number on file. When a fish came in that wouldn’t sell in Tokyo, Kliss would drive it to a Long Wharf wholesaler and have it butchered. He made sure a few pounds went to Oishii and that enthusiastic guy he’d met on the boat.

By the turn of the century, San wasn’t alone in clamoring for a hunk of good toro. As Japanese demand for tuna cratered, desire for it was stirring closer to home. Thirty-five years after the first sushi bar in the United States opened in Los Angeles, American diners—and not just those in big-city downtowns and wealthy suburbs—were learning to love uncooked seafood. Japan’s economic bust may have closed down the destination sushi spots that once catered to the expense accounts of visiting Tokyo executives, but in their place arose a new set of less formal restaurants squarely aimed at middle America’s growing number of culinary adventurers. Small sushi bars opened up in what seemed like every town, and takeout versions appeared in mall food courts and supermarket deli counters. In Boston, neighborhood joints (like the original Oishii) led to large, extravagant sushi palaces (like the new one on Washington Street). Today in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner alone, there are a whopping 11 sushi restaurants. “And we’re all busy all the time,” says Fugakyu chef Hiro Ruhan.

As curious gourmets became sushi aficionados, they, too, were willing to pay higher prices for top-shelf tuna. While sushi’s boom during Japan’s heyday now seems to have been driven largely by the logic of mania, in the United States it was sustained by true changes in taste. And that made it recession-proof: Prices for bluefin continued to rise even when the U.S. economy slowed after the NASDAQ crash of early 2000. At Masa in New York, the set price for a tasting is $400. At Oishii or O Ya, the newest Japanese restaurant in the Leather District, diners can spend as much as $200 per person—or leave hungry.

The new eagerness of American diners to engage in Tokyo-style profligacy has radically changed San’s access to Boston bluefin. Using 700 pounds of tuna per week at his three restaurants and willing to pay as much as $30 per pound for it—or $68 for toro alone—Ting is now able to purchase whole tuna from Kliss, instead of having to share one through a wholesaler, as many other chefs are left to do. And even though some fishermen are still swept up in the romance of having their catch hit a Tokyo jackpot, in many cases Kliss prefers to sell it domestically; in fact, in recent years he has distributed about 75 percent of his fish within the United States. The top price that American buyers can offer is still almost always lower than the bottom price a Boston bluefin can fetch at a Tsukiji auction. But once freight costs, tariffs, and auction-listing fees are added to the total, the gap closes considerably, if not entirely.

The irony is that although Bostonians are finally shelling out good money for Boston bluefin, few do so knowing what they’re paying for. While menus across the city brag about the homegrown origins of their ingredients—Verrill Farm tomatoes, Nantucket Bay scallops—Oishii’s makes no mention of where the day’s tuna was caught. At a time when “eat local” is a rallying cry, not to mention a marketing plan, sushi bars continue to bank on their mysterious cosmopolitanism. And so, here in Boston, just about the only people who appreciate the provincial bounty are those who have traveled the greatest distance to get it. “We had one Japanese customer coming in who just wanted local fish,” San says. “Nothing flown in.”

Adapted from The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy by Sasha Issenberg, published by Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright 2007 by the author.