Sameya’s bright red truck is easy to spot, not least for its long line of customers at Keio University’s Hiyoshi Campus. Inside, owner-chef Takumi Takase makes jokes and conversation as he prepares orders of dry seafood curry, spicy gapao rice (a Thai stir-fry dish), taco rice or shark burgers. Each dish uses shark meat from Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, a city in Tohoku devastated by the 2011 tsunami.
“If I can make shark meat popular, then it will help the fishermen in Kesennuma,” says Takase, as he tidies his food truck after a busy day, the sleeves of his gray Sameya sweatshirt rolled up to his elbows. “The fishermen risk their lives so people can eat this delicious food, but they get such a low salary. I want to make it rewarding for them.”
Located 470 kilometers north of Tokyo, Kesennuma is a major fishing port famous for its catches of shark, swordfish and bonito. However, the industry struggles with the triple conundrum of an aging workforce, low salaries and falling fish stocks. On March 11, 2011, a 10-meter-tall tsunami, triggered by Japan’s strongest earthquake on record, destroyed the port and much of the city, and killed nearly 1,500 people. It was a staggering blow to to the community and the local economy.
That following April, Takase went with a group of his fellow Waseda University students to help with the cleanup effort. “I will never forget the smell,” he says, shaking his head. His face under his blue Kesennuma baseball cap turns serious. “I’d never seen anything like that,” he says, describing the debris-filled, flattened landscape of the once-bustling port.
Takase was deeply moved by his initial visit and returned regularly, looking for ways to help. “I didn’t really know what to do, but I realized that jobs were what they needed if real recovery was going to happen,” he says.
To Takase, the pivotal role fishermen played in the local economy was clear. “Everything in Kesennuma is based on fishing,” he says. “Many jobs start with their fish: food processing, distribution, boat building and more. I thought, ‘If I can help the fishermen, I can help the city.'”
Takase zeroed-in on Kesennuma’s shark catch as the place of greatest opportunity. Fins for fukahire (shark fin soup) were a lucrative market for Kesennuma’s fishermen. However, in compliance with international regulations, in 2009 Japan developed the National Plan of Action-Sharks. Fins can be gathered, but carcasses must be landed and used. The resulting meat turns into local specialties, fish sausage and school lunches. Yet demand and, subsequently, the fishermen’s pay remains low. So, in October 2017, Takase started Sameya to try and change that.
On weekdays, Takase rotates between five locations in Tokyo and Yokohama, joining festivals and farmers markets on weekends. He uses 100 kilograms of shark meat from Kesennuma each month, and recently added oysters from another local fisherman to his menu.
With his curry and rice-based dishes, Takase serves generous helpings of tender cubes of shark meat, similar in texture to chicken breast and with a slight fish taste, alongside a green salad, pink pickled kabu (turnip) and his special curried potato salad.
His shark burgers are crispy and juicy, topped with either salsa or tartar sauce. The recipes are Takase’s own handiwork, learned from reading many cookbooks and lots of trial and error.
“If I can get people to eat shark meat regularly, then it will make sharks more valuable for fishermen,” says Takase. He also hopes to help Kesennuma get Marine Stewardship Council-certified, an internationally recognized sustainable fishing standard. “I want to save sharks,” he adds, “but I still want to eat them. If I can make their catch worth more, (fishermen) can earn a better living, and maybe more young people will decide to stay and become fishermen, too.”
For information on Sameya’s schedule, visit www.facebook.com/sameya.foodtruck.