Merchants and volunteers grilling saury in front of Meguro Station on Sept. 4 (Louis Templado)The line for free fish stretched several blocks (Louis Templado)
Six months after the Great East Japan Earthquake, some fortunate diners--several thousand Tokyo residentsgot to feast on sanma (saury), an autumn delicacy, thanks to the generosity of fishermen and officials of disaster-hit Miyako, Iwate Prefecture.
Before the earthquake and tsunami, Miyako was one of the Tohoku region's main fishing ports for offloading fishparticularly sanmawhen they're fattest and oiliest. Nearly 7,000 saury arrived for the Tokyo fish-fest, the Meguro Sanma Matsuri, which took place Sept. 4 in front of Meguro Station in Shinagawa Ward.
"This is our show of support for Miyako," says Masakazu Nakazaki, head of the Meguro merchant's union that organizes the yearly festival. Boxes set up near the fish netted over 2.11 million yen in donations from diners, while stall operators gave portions of their profits to the town.
The event started 16 years ago, when the merchants decided to stage the free outdoor cookout with money from their own pockets.
After three years, newspapers reported that the fish came out of Miyako. When the fishermen there got wind of where their catch was going, they called up the Meguro organizers.
"They said, 'You don't have to pay uswe'll give you the fish you want.' At first it was a lot smaller, with just a few hundred fish," says Nakazaki. "But over the years, the crowds have become bigger, and so have the shipments from Miyako."
In fact, the number of visitors swells to nearly 50,000 on some years, which means that not everybody can get their fill.
Huge lines form. And the Meguro merchants and volunteers, working in goggles because of the thick smoke, are able to grill only a thousand fish an hour.
"It becomes a battle for those willing to wait the longest," Nakazaki says.
Seeing the crowds, it's hard to imagine the national call for "self-restraint" that defined the weeks after the disaster. Nakazaki went up to Miyako to show that the Meguro merchants were ready to carry on.
The story of Meguro and sanma actually goes back further, to an Edo-Period (1603-1867) rakugo comic storytelling tale. In it, a passing noble samples the delicacy and mistakenly believes that Meguro is famous for its fish, although the ocean is nowhere nearby.
Other large-scale sanma grillings are on the calendar.
On Sept. 18, 5,000 fish will be served at Dendo Hiroba park, on the Meguro Ward side of Meguro Station, from 10 a.m. The catch comes from the Miyagi Prefecture port of Kesennuma.
Likewise, 3,333 saury are on the menu for a Sept. 23 event planned for Tokyo Tower, located in Minato Ward, from 10 a.m.
Although both ports were heavily damaged by the tsunami, industry there wants to show they're still in the game. And what's better for business than a free nibble of things to come?
Banquet chef hits an artistic sweet spot
LOUIS TEMPLADO STAFF WRITER
Chef Takashi Ito eyes two of his watermelon creations, one in support of Japan and the other showing a kabuki actor based on a Sharaku ukiyo-e print. (Louis Templado)Ito carves into a watermelon. (Louis Templado)A detail of the Sharaku watermelon. (Louis Templado)An anime-style depiction of a wedding couple. (Provided by Takashi Ito)A sumo wrestler in traditional pose adorns this watermelon. (Provided by Takashi Ito)Baseball is the theme of this fruit. (Provided by Takashi Ito)A watermelon depiction of a Vincent van Gogh self-portrait. (Provided by Takashi Ito)
What could be more cooling in summer than the sweet flavor of watermelon? Even the sight of one seems to offer just the teeniest hint of relief from the sweltering heat. There is, after all, something so pleasing about the simple shape of this fruit.
But leave it to chef Takashi Ito to take the art of slicing and dicing watermelon one step further. After he gets done, the result is an intricate work of art.
As the supervisor of the banquet kitchens at the Grand Prince Hotel Takanawa in Tokyo's Minato Ward, Ito usually has his hands full preparing hors d'oeuvres for hundreds, even thousands of guests, at a time.
It's one thing to present cube-shaped chunks of watermelon on a plate; and quite another to bring the faces of company presidents and wedding couples to life from the rind.
"Knowing how real to make a likeness is the most challenging part," says Ito, whose website (http://www.geocities.jp/suika_carving/profile.html) showcases part of a decade's worth of watermelon carving.
Many of his designs are for corporations and groups and cannot be shown.
"Men and women have different tastes. A woman will find it uncomfortable if what I carve looks too real. One reason is that the watermelon rind is green, and that makes people look like space aliens. So I have to be careful to make my designs look more playful, more like an anime. Men on the other hand want it to look as real as possible."
"Goosebumps" and "culture shock" is how Ito describes his first encounter with carved watermelons at a Thai cuisine fair held in Tokyo. He determined then and there to buy his own melon and try his hand at it. That was 10 years ago. Over the years he's developed a playful style unique from that found in Thailand--where fruit carving dates back more than 700 years.
"Thai chefs usually prefer to work in the round, but I limit myself to a 250-mm center area, but that brings its own difficulties," says Ito, who counts manga and ukiyo-e among his influences. "The melon is a globe, so like a Mercator projection map, you have to anticipate distortion at the poles."
Ito's melons of choice come from Kumamoto Prefecture, or from Okinawa Prefecture and Hokkaido when those are unavailable. He limits his carving sessions into a single block of one to three hours, beyond which his concentration falters. For his most intricate creations he will first practice on a daikon radish.
The watermelon, he has learned, is an almost perfect fruit for the immensity of a banquet space, thanks to its size, color and long life. Chilled well, a carved melon will keep for a week.
"Japanese and Western cuisine also have a history of decorative carving behind them," says Ito. But flowers carved from carrots, as an example, are just too small to appreciate from a distance. "But a watermelon can capture attention even from across the banquet room. It invites people to approach and then delivers a real surprise when they do."
"When I first started I never imagined I'd end up carving hundreds of watermelons," he adds. "Thinking back, that's the most important thing. No matter how talented or dexterous you are, it doesn't mean much if you don't continue."