Fish fillets come in all sorts of sizes. In my early years, they usually came fried on a bun, as a hamburger substitute on Fridays. As I’ve “matured,” and my pallet has expanded, I’ve grown to love the taste of fresh fish and even sushi, which usually has a few pieces of raw fish as well. Just a short 1.5-mile bike ride from my house in Tokyo is the world’s largest fish market, Tsukiji (pronounced ski-gee). The market sells more than 400 different types of seafood, from cheap seaweed to the most expensive caviar. Each year, more than 700,000 metric tons of seafood are handled at Tsukiji’s three seafood markets, which is over 4 million pounds of fish per day! This is an impressive sight, not to be missed.
Most of the fish market is indoors and unbelievably clean. Amazingly, even on the hottest summer days the market does not smell. It is cold, clean, and incredibly busy. The workers zip around the stalls on a cross between a miniature forklift and a segway. The seafood auctions start everyday at 3:00 a.m. and the tuna auctions are the most important. They are lined up, row upon row, waiting to be bought and transformed from 650-pound giants to just an ounce or two on top of sushi. I have yet to brave the early morning fish auction, but Tusukiji has become my go-to place for fish fillets.
Today though, I’m not in the hustle and bustle of Tuskiji, but the kitchens of Le Cordon Bleu and we are going to braise four fillets of fish. Great! I know fish can be delicate and tricky to cook, but I’m ready to move beyond poultry. The demonstration class is first and I arrive nice and early to get a good seat in the front. Chef starts the class by pulling out the ingredients. It’s a whole fish! What—the recipe said we were making fish fillets! I glance at my recipe for the day—yep, fillet of fish. And then I look more closely at the ingredients: one Brill, flat fish. Somehow I have to get from whole fish to a fillet and cook it, all in 2.5 hours? I want to yell out “Wait, I’m not prepared for this! You mean I have to clean the fish too? Chef, this is only the third week of class. If I’m cleaning a fish in week three, what will I be doing in month three?”
I know if I did shout out this common-sense response, Chef would simply shrug and say something very wise like, “Well, how else do you know if it’s fresh?”
While I’m having my own private breakdown and subsequent pep talk, Chef has continued on with the class, pretending not to notice the look of horror and fear in our faces. He’s talking about scaling, cleaning the insides and Lasik surgery…no, just my active imagination; it was actually eye removal. Seriously, I thought this was cooking!! The rest of the demonstration class was a blur. I can’t get over the preparation process.
But when I returned home, I remembered a passage from a book by David McCullough titled Brave Companions. He recounts the story of Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz. Mr. Agassiz would give his new students a fish and simply say, “Look at your fish.” He would come back three hours later and ask again for them to, “Look at your fish.” This would go on for two to three days. The students would examine, dissect and draw, trying to understand anything and everything they could. And so, this is my time to look at my fish. Instead of shying away from the process, I need to pay attention, appreciate the design and structure. The best way to honor my little friend from the sea is to prepare beautiful fillets.
The next morning, I arrive and take a good look at my fish. The scales are thick and round and iridescent. I think they would look beautiful as sequins on a dress. I also learn that this wonderful fish is full of natural defenses and the gills are filled with tiny little bones that can and do prick my fingers like sewing needles. Had I looked at my fish more carefully, I would have known this.
After the remaining cleaning, I realize that I had not known a flat fish has a different bone structure than a round fish. The flat fish has a spine in the middle, creating four fillets for cooking, unlike the round fish that only has two. With the work of a sharp and flexible fish knife, the fillets and the skin are removed. It’s a simple process and more about confidence than skill.
I still am not done, for now I really need look at my fish to find and remove the delicate bones that remain in the flesh. As I try to see them, I realize they are actually transparent, so I need to look with my fingers and tweezers. As I find them and try to pull them out I appreciate how strong they are for such a flexible animal. And now, I am done. In less than 30 minutes I was able to separate the fillets from the bones.
But I felt sad too, for I wanted to examine my fish a little longer. I wonder what else the student naturalist learned over three days; certainly more than what I have learned in 30 minutes. I do though take a moment to look at my two trays and marvel at how much this one fish will provide: four fresh and nutritious fillets, and stock for braising. I also think about the over 4 million pounds of fish sold each day from Tsukiji. All over the world people have been, are, and will be eating the bounty from the sea. Today I have joined a long line of home and professional chefs who make fresh fillet o’fish. I may not be ready to skin and fillet the 650-pound tunas at Tsukiji, but after three short weeks at Le Cordon Bleu, I can handle a four-pound Brill.