Chef seeks to revolutionize quality of British fish

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo

A London-based Japanese chef has embarked on a mission to share knowledge from his home country with the British fishing industry after becoming fed up with the poor quality of locally sourced seafood.

Yoshinori Ishii, head chef at the restaurant UMU, has been visiting fishermen to tell them how they can improve the quality of the fish they sell to markets and restaurants.

When Ishii first arrived in Britain, he was struck by the fact that a lot of the fish on sale was at least one week old and of poor quality. The meat frequently had a pungent, “fishy” smell and taste that would be considered unacceptable in Japan.

For a Japanese restaurant like UMU that serves raw fish, this is a serious concern, prompting Ishii to start investigating local fishing practices.

To his dismay, he discovered fish were being caught and then left to die slowly on the deck of the boat, sometimes for up to three hours. This slow, stressful death causes the quality of meat to deteriorate and contributes to the “fishy” smell and taste, said Ishii. As a result, fish can often end up with a mushy, as opposed to firm, texture.

“It’s one of the worst ways to kill fish. It leaves them no good for eating and is not a humane way to kill them,” Ishii said.

Instead, he recommends that fish be killed as quickly as possible aboard the boat using a technique known as “ikejime.” As part of this process, a fish is first killed by the insertion of a spike into its brain and then placed in iced water. The main arteries are then severed — draining the blood improves the quality of the meat — and a thin wire is thread into the spinal cord to stop the fish from suffering any more stress and further damaging the meat. The fish is then put into iced water.

Ishii visited Cornwall to teach ikejime to fishermen who supply his restaurant. “They wanted to learn it. (Ikejime) is spreading little by little,” he said.

Ishii’s restaurant is willing to pay more for fish killed using the technique and the practice has been adopted by some fishermen. He said ikejime is a widespread practice in Japan, where restaurants are willing to pay a premium for such fish. He also noted that wholesale markets in Britain tend to hold back supplies of refrigerated fish to maintain high prices.

This means the fish can be up to a week old — the reason Ishii insists on fish being delivered to his “kaiseki” (multicourse meal) restaurant the day after they are caught.

“Most people in this country think fish should have that fishy smell and flavor, but for me that’s 100 percent wrong,” he said.

Ishii noted that some European chefs believe that fish isn’t right unless it has that “fishy” taste and smell, and they often leave it to “age” for several days.

“Customers give me good feedback on freshness and are starting to realize the importance of (ikejime),” he said. “They now have to put pressure on the fishing industry. If fresh, British sea bass is the best in the world.”

Even if British fishermen don’t sign up to his ikejime revolution, the chef would like to see, as a minimum, that all fishermen ice their catch to preserve the quality of the meat.