This is where tuna ends

Tuna at Tsukiji
Whole frozen tuna on a forklift at Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo

I have no hope whatsoever for the future of tuna. The death warrant for Atlantic tuna was written at the last meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, ensuring that current tuna stocks will have a 50% chance of recovering in the next decade. The tuna is one of the only endangered species that you could buy at the supermarket to feed to your cat or rave about eating a perfect red shard atop vinegared rice without social repercussions. I doubt this prevailing attitude will change before the bluefin and yellowfin tuna are well dead.

Roughly, three quarters of the world’s tuna is eaten by Japan and from four in the morning, it looks like roughly three quarters of the Japan’s tuna is at Tsukiji fish market in downtown Tokyo. Frozen torpedoes of fish are lined up in a warehouse for auction, a visual cliche of Tokyo that wrestles for space in travel brochures with Goth Lolitas and that busy intersection in Shibuya.

The auction rooms are currently cut off to tourists thanks to its popularity and the propensity of tourists to fall beneath forklifts. (It appears that the auction area is actually open to a limited number of visitors each day (Cheers, Akila) – I must have missed the cut). Austin Bush has some excellent coverage of the auctions. I concentrated on what happens next.

Tuna at Tsukiji

The areas where the middlemen transfer and dismantle the tuna is still accessible for death by forklift. Tuna are transferred from the auction area into stalls on handcarts yoked to the elderly, motorised gurneys which appear to be the offspring of a motorcycle and a double bed, and your construction-variety forklift.

Whole frozen tuna on a cart

Tuna are kept cool with blocks of dry ice while they await the bandsaw. The smaller stallholders break down their morning’s buy into component cuts, dividing the buttery belly cuts from the coarser red flesh. It’s a much less sterile process that I would have expected with tuna heads piling up on the concrete floor before the flesh is removed from their cheeks, collar and eyes.

Filleting Tuna at Tsukiji

Fresh fish are hand-filleted. If you’re at all interested in the full Japanese 27-step process for breaking down a tuna, Cooking Issues comes up with the goods.

Tuna at Tsukiji

Once removed from the bone, fillets are further onsold; restaurants and smaller vendors picking up particular cuts to resell elsewhere in the city and sate the endless appetite for this doomed fish.

Let’s consume ethnicity!

Let's consume ethnicity!

Each Sunday in Bac Ha in mountainous Sapa, Vietnam, subsistence farmers from the surrounding hills descend on the normally sleepy market to watch tourists perform feats of amateur ethnography and find new ways to trivialise their culture.

Flower Hmong with traditional musical instrument

Local hilltribes get into their Sunday best to hit the market mostly for mod-cons and consumer durables: new lightbulbs, fabric printed in Flower Hmong patterns imported from Hanoi, kitchen implements, traditional musical instruments (above). At the entrance of the market is my favourite moment of staged authenticity: a photo booth where tourists can pose for a shot with their selection of garishly-dressed local women and children against an equally garishly printed waterfall backdrop. Travellers are then shuttled off into the nearest village so that they can capture the smiling local kids for posterity in their more authentic setting.

Because I feel uneasy treating subsistence farmers as a tourist attraction by virtue of their silly hats, I hit up the (mostly) ethnically Vietnamese vendors for food.

Shopping for pork at Bac Ha Market

The weekend meat of choice seems to be slabs of incredibly fatty local pork. I don’t think that I’ve ever visited a market so pig-centric, with a long line of pork-only butchers displaying their cuts on a row of wooden trestles.

Pork on sale at Bac Ha Market

This little pig went to market. Belly seems to be the popular cut and butchers cut each slab into more manageable slices to order.

Citrus patties, Bac Ha, Vietnam

On the ready-to-eat front, I found a vendor selling these small disks of orange rice flour batter, deep fried until crispy on the outside but still chewy. The whole batter is infused with a mandarine/citrus flavour, giving them a slightly tart and sour edge as well as (I assume) their lurid orange color.

Buffalo on sale at Bac Ha Market

The market also does good business in live buffalo, the going rate reported to be around $600 per beast. There is much quiet discussion and consideration of each animal and very little hustle to indicate that a sale is actually taking place.

Location: Bac Ha Market runs on Sundays in Bac Ha, North of Lao Cai in Vietnam.