The idea of not wanting something to go to waste — mottainai — is a concept ingrained since childhood in many in Japan.

Leaving food in your bowl is one thing that would elicit a cry of “mottainai,” but the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry estimates Japan tosses over 6 million tons of still-edible food a year.

That includes several thousands of tons of seafood discarded annually at places such as the Toyosu wholesale fish market, often for purely cosmetic reasons: produce is the wrong size, has scratches or is missing a tentacle.

Mottainai Action is a project seeking to change that. Started in 2014, its aims are simple, but bold: combat food waste; prove that almost-perfect produce is just as delicious as its better-looking counterparts; and redefine the conversation on sustainability in food. How? By creating izakaya bars that rely on “unwanted” produce for ingredients.

Its first opening was the Tsukiji Mottainai Project Uoharu in Tokyo’s corporate Yurakucho district in late 2014. A second venture, Toyosu Mottainai Project Uoharu, opened its doors in June 2019 below the railway tracks in affluent Nakameguro.

Get a hold of this: Mottainai Project Uoharu's tematen is a tempura-fried temaki hand-held sushi roll topped with that day's fish offerings. | COURTESY OF MUGEN
Get a hold of this: Mottainai Project Uoharu’s tematen is a tempura-fried temaki hand-held sushi roll topped with that day’s fish offerings. | COURTESY OF MUGEN

The locations are no accident, says Uoharu Nakameguro head chef Yuji Sakurada. “One of the reasons we wanted to open in more upscale neighborhoods is to ensure people don’t think these ingredients are cheap,” Sakurada says. “If we opened in Shinbashi, for example, or other places with lots of lower-price izakaya, it would seem like these ‘mottainai’ products were cheap. … They’re still great quality. For people to understand that, it was important to open in these areas.”

The ambitious project is a partnership between three companies. It began after intermediate wholesaler Yamaharu was involved with an event for a drinkmaker hosted by A-dot, a marketing company. “Through Yamaharu, we learned about all the ‘non-standard’ seafood that was left unsold and then disposed of at Tsukiji at the time,” says Yasutaka Nogita, a member of A-dot’s press relations.

A-dot decided to join forces with Yamaharu to prove this seafood is worth eating. To do so, Mugen, a restaurant operator which manages over a dozen establishments in the capital, got involved.

“We’ve actually been preparing dishes with lesser-known fish for over a decade, as a bit of a challenge to the chefs,” Sakurada says. He’s been involved with Mugen for years, previously working as a chef at its other restaurants. “We made the wholesalers happy by buying up all their wares, but then had to think about how to cook with them.” According to Sakurada, many chefs would say “Oh, I don’t cook with this,” thereby leaving perfectly good seafood to go to waste.

At either Uoharu branch, that isn’t an option. The day’s menu is decided when the fish comes in from the wholesaler, around 1 p.m. For that reason, the core menu — tempura, sashimi, some grilled options, as well as a few daily specials — stays relatively the same, although the exact produce differs. The Yurakucho branch opens for lunch as well as dinner, so the boxes are brought in during service. “It’s a bit hectic,” Sakurada admits with a laugh. Uoharu Nakameguro only does dinner, which means chefs have a few hours to figure out the menu.

Getting to all the good bits: Mottainai Project Uoharu's okoge (scorched rice) sando is a sandwich made from a crispy layer of pan-fried rice and stuffed with the catch of the day. | COURTESY OF MUGEN
Getting to all the good bits: Mottainai Project Uoharu’s okoge (scorched rice) sando is a sandwich made from a crispy layer of pan-fried rice and stuffed with the catch of the day. | COURTESY OF MUGEN

Both Uoharus have off-beat staples, created for a younger clientele, on the menu, including whimsical dishes such as the okoge (scorched rice) sando: a “sandwich” made with the crispy layer of rice found at the bottom of a pan, with the catch of the day as filling (¥450). The tempura isn’t just your bog-standard, battered-fried ingredient, either. Uoharu does a bite-sized tematen, a dainty temaki hand roll that is flash-fried and topped with daily fish offerings (from ¥300).

Ordering a selection of sashimi and tempura (from ¥480 and ¥100, respectively), there’s little to fault here taste-wise and the presentation itself is just as aesthetically pleasing as at a “regular” restaurant. Dishes feel playful, with one plate featuring a loose suction cup placed next to the chunkier, but otherwise perfectly nice, slice of octopus sashimi.

In the future, the plan is to broaden the Mottainai Uoharu project repertoire even further. That includes hosting semiregular events, with course meals made completely from ingredients saved from the incinerator. On top of this, Sakurada says Uoharu wants to fill a gap in the area.

“There aren’t many places where you can buy great fish in Nakameguro. We’d like to fill that space, and really be the local fishmongers. Giving people an idea of what good fish they can get today, blemishes and all.” Buying consciously has never been more delicious.

Toyosu Mottainai Project Uoharu: Kamimeguro 3-5-24, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 153-0051; 03-6712-2077; open daily 5 p.m.-1 a.m.; nearest station Nakameguro; major cards accepted. For more information about the Mottainai Action project and Uoharu, visit mottainai-action.com and mugen-c.jp.

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