My hometown used to be a small fishing village, which merged into a city decades ago. When I was a kid, I played on the beach (actually more like a rocky seashore) every day, and at spring tide, the entire family spent a whole day picking shell fish and sea weeds there. When my grandma was young, according to dad, she would go to the local fishing port every morning to buy fresh fish, and serve sashimi (sliced raw fish) at breakfast. Yes, as you might know, Japanese traditional breakfast often includes grilled (dried) fish. But I don’t think eating raw fish first thing in the morning is a very popular custom in this country. Personally I don’t even want to give it a try. :P
So you think that my work in the fish section of the supermarket may make me homesick? Well... yes, sometimes. When we sold some fresh abalones there the other day, I couldn't help saying, "Gosh, I wanna go abalone picking right now!" as I was packing them. But most of the time I'm busy discovering and learning new things about the seafood diet here, which is a little different from what I was used to in my hometown, and that is really interesting.
First of all, I was amazed to see so many elderly people in the neighborhood being the regular visitors of the fish section of this supermarket. They usually come in as soon as the store opens. I mean, I knew that older folks love fish. But this town is quite far from the ocean-- compared to my hometown-- so I didn’t expect the older folks in a place like this to be THAT crazy about eating fresh and nicely fatty fish. The privilege of working at this "interactive" fish section is being able to observe or even be acquainted with such regular customers.
Although more and more fish and shellfish are farmed these days, still the items sold in the fish section are largely affected by the season and the weather here. There are regular items that we have on the shelves almost every day, but they don't always come from the same place, and they taste quite differently depending on where they are from. So I can see those daily visitors come to the store being pretty excited, wondering what goodies they are going to find that day.
A couple of dressed up elderly women usually come in as soon as the store opens... maybe every other day. They seem to be meeting up at the entrance and enjoying strolling around in the fish section together, trying to pick their "sashimi of the day." And there is a grandma who just loves our saba-zushi (mackerel sushi). We usually make and sell saba-zushi on Thursdays and Saturdays around lunch time, and she never misses those days. Every time she comes, she claims that she is a big fan of our saba-zushi. Sometimes we have to tell her that we can't make the sushi because we have no mackerels, then she gets so disappointed.
And in early April, the "bonito bones craze" has started. Every day a bunch of people come in -- as soon as we open -- almost frantically looking for bonito scraps, especially bones. For what? For simmering bamboo shoots. Maybe those who are familiar with traditional Japanese dishes have heard of “takenoko no Tosa-ni (simmered bamboo shoots, Tosa-style)?” The recipe calls for a bunch of bonito flakes, and the dish was named so because Tosa (former name of Kochi prefecture) is famous for bonito flakes. But I tell you what -- The hard-core bamboo shoot lovers in Tosa do not use bonito flakes for that dish; they use bonito bones. I didn’t know that because my mom simmers bamboo shoots a little differently, so I was surprised with their enthusiasm. At the supermarket, we usually put more than 10 packs of bonito scraps on the shelf, and in almost less than one hour, they are gone. And we keep hearing "Don't you have bonito bones today?" from the customers who came too late.
Curiosity made me try using bonito bones for this traditional dish, and yes, now I know why they make such a big deal out of the bones of this particular fish. Some people may find it too fishy, and the chefs of sophisticated kaiseki would frown, but using the bones does give more richness and more flavor to the dish with almost “sweet” aroma (at least while the dish is warm). And -- this may sound barbaric but -- the fish meat left around the bones tastes oh so good! ;P
So now I understand why bonito bones are so popular. But I couldn’t understand why the store sells so many different kinds of fish guts as well. I know some fish scrap is great for making stock and some fish egg taste great if cooked properly. But some fish guts seemed just useless and unprofitable because they were sold so cheap. Then one day an elderly woman asked me, “Oh, you don’t have XXXXX (<-- name of the particular fish organ) today?” and so sadly added, “Ah, nothing for my neko-chan (kitty) today!” Boy, all those fish guts and strings that made me think, “How the hell do they cook and eat this stuff?” were for beloved neko-chans in this community! I wonder how many other supermarkets in Japan pack and label foods for four-legged customers. No, I’m not being cynical. I like it. It makes me feel that this place is really like a good old, community-based store.
Some of the regular customers of the supermarket deserve to be called "fish experts," I think. They always ask my boss detailed questions directly over the display case. (As I wrote before, the refrigerating display case is tall enough to hide the filleting process behind it, but to show the boss’s cap to let customers know that he is there to answer questions.) Maybe the experts are ex-owners of fish stores or those who moved into this town from fishing villages or chefs at local eating places and bento shops. Some of them often buy many (or all) packs of certain items at once, so I need to be careful when I see them. I’m supposed to check the display case once in a while and tell boss before certain items are completely sold out. But when such customers come, the part of the shelf which was full a minute ago can be totally empty when I came back from checking on the neighboring frozen seafood section. :O
Among the “expert” customers, there is an elderly woman who loves sayori (Japanese needlefish) so much and always buys a few kilograms of them at once. Inspired by her, I once bought some real fresh ones in late March and made sashimi at home. Yes, it was my PF (preparing fish) 103: filleting Japanese needlefish. But I wasn't taught how to do it at work; I found a how-to website on the net and practiced at home. (These photos were taken before I filleted them, but I must say that the fish looked much, much more beautiful than these photos.) The fresh sayori sashimi was oh so heavenly good! No wonder she buys THAT many of them for herself and her neighbors.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Posted by obachan at 4/21/2008 11:55:00 PM