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Kinki Daigaku Suisan Kenkyujo: Take the farm-grown bluefin tuna taste test

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

Some fish swim in universities. Or university-run fish farms, to be exact, and upon graduation they end up as sashimi served over a bed of crushed ice.

This is the fate of the kuro maguro, bluefin tuna reared and harvested by Kinki University in Kansai, which has a satellite restaurant in both Osaka and Tokyo.

On a recent visit to Kinki Daigaku Suisan Kenkyujo’s Osaka location, I was seated alongside an upright glass cabinet, next to the kitchen. Inside the cabinet, just above my head, was the severed head of a bluefin tuna. Stacked below it were great hunks of deep-red tuna flesh that were soon to find their way into dishes throughout lunch and dinner.

The head gives an idea of just how big bluefin tuna can get: In the wild they can grow to 500 kilograms. And it’s in the wild where these mighty fish are being eradicated. By nearly all accounts, the population of wild Pacific bluefin tuna is at drastically low levels, so much so that the species has been placed on numerous endangered lists. Japan, as it happens, consumes 80 percent of the global catch of all bluefin tuna.

Since the late 1970s, Kindai, as the school is known, has been engaged in efforts to farm the fish to relieve some of the pressure on populations in the wild. It’s been a long and difficult experiment, and the breakthrough in producing the world’s first generation of fully farmed bluefin tuna only came in recent years. Kindai plans to supply half of Japan’s Bluefin tuna consumption by 2020.

There’s certainly no shortage of customers in Osaka. At their Osaka location, in the swanky surroundings of Grand Front Osaka, adjoining Osaka Station, there was a queue of nearly 100 people before the doors had even opened, which happens daily. While this is good news for Kindai, what it means in a wider context is anybody’s guess. Will consumers think more about the tuna crisis? Will their eating habits change?

The lunch menu here is limited to five set menus. In the evening, there is more choice, but regardless of when you go maguro will be an option, as well as a selection of other fish that Kindai have been rearing. Accompanying the akami (red meat) and toro (fatty) sashimi were cuts of tai (sea bream) and sakuramasu (cherry salmon).

So how does this university-bred fish taste? In a word, it’s good. There is a steady consistency to the taste, texture and fat content of farm-grown maguro. While it lacks the depth of flavors found in wild tuna, this is a small price to pay for the survival of the species overall.

It’s a pity that the blob of wasabi paste, which is strong enough to stop a shinkansen, could not be likewise toned down. Perhaps that’s a project the scientists at Kindai could tackle next: how to make a wasabi paste that won’t overpower everything it’s served to complement.

In the meantime, if you’re in the mood for maguro, strongly consider Kinki Daigaku Suisan Kenkyujo.

Open daily 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. (L.O. 10 p.m.); lunch sets from ¥1,500; a la carte from ¥900; Japanese menus; some English spoken