Saturday, August 09, 2008

Katsuo no Tataki in Kochi

Katsuo is Japanese for bonito, a species of mackerel. When Japanese people hear "katsuo," they immediately think of Kochi prefecture. Annual consumption of katsuo in Kochi is nearly four times that of other prefectures. Between 2005 ~ 2007, the national average was 1351g/ 3 lbs per two person household, but in Kochi it was 5183g/ 11.4 lbs!

Before my recent trip to Japan, I was longing to eat the REAL Katsuo no Tataki in Kochi
. The origin of Katsuo no Tataki is not well documented. Legend has it that Yamauchi Kazutoyo (or Katsutoyo) (b.1545- -d.1605), who became feudal ruler of Kochi in 1600, forbade eating fresh katsuo due to the possibility of food poisoning. To prevent illness, he ordered people to grill the katsuo before eating it. The origin of word "tataki" is also not well defined. The word "tataki" or "tataku" means "to beat," "to slap," or "to pad" in Japanese. Therefore tataki is known to be a cooking technique where a blade is used to pad the fish with salt to tighten the flesh giving it a desirable texture.

When I was daydreaming about Katsuo no Tataki while working at SAKAYA (our sake store), I had a customer from Kochi city. As soon as I learned that he was from Kochi, I asked him where to go to find the best Katsuo no Tataki. He recommended that I visit Yairo-tei at Hirome Ichiba.

Hirome Ichiba (market) is a kind of food court, but it is a place where there are about 65 shops including green market, fish markets, butcher, souvenir shops, sake retail shops, snack shops, takeout food shops, bars, and izakaya jammed into a huge building. It opened 10 years ago to promote local products and business. With its casual, down-to-earth atmosphere, you can order a dish from any of the vendors and then eat at the centrally located tables.

Yairo-tei is a small izakaya-style shop next to a takoyaki shop. When I arrived it was around 6pm, and people were already drinking and eating in front of Yairo-tei. I peaked inside and saw two salarymen sitting at the bar drinking. I decided to sit at the bar, so that I could have better view of the taisho (the owner chef) cooking the tataki. I then ordered a cold beer to keep from salivating too profusely while waiting for my tataki to be served.

I learned that in Kochi, Shio Tataki (salt tataki) is the norm. The more common or well known version of Tataki is the Tare version where the tataki is served with a special tataki sauce (soy sauce with vinegar and citrus). In Kochi, Shio Tataki is the more popular type, slightly grilled over a straw fueled fire.

At Yairo-tei, I ordered Shio Tataki. The taisho took out the katsuo and started to place the straw in the handmade grill box. Slowly the place became smoky and as my eyes started to burn, he placed the fish on the grill. He seared the fish quickly and placed it on a cutting board.

With quick and rhythmic strokes, he sliced the tataki, and served it on a plate with sliced daikon, garlic, sudachi (type of citrus), and wasabi. Without a moment's hesitation, I picked up a piece with my chopsticks and put it in my mouth. It was delicious! It was sublimely tasty; slightly smoky, meaty in texture and super fresh. I could imagine it as being popular alternative to tuna steak. Crispy on the outside and rare on inside, it was tender and toothsome with just enough fattiness to stand up to the garlic and wasabi condiments which added just the right amount of complimentary kick to the dish. I savored every piece, hoping to secure the experience in my sensory memory as how the best katsuo no tataki should taste.

Yairo-tei at Hirome Ichiba was just what the SAKAYA customer promised. It was casual, homey,inexpensive, and made great katsuo no tataki! When I left Yairo-tei, I vowed to come back someday with Rick to have the katsuo no tataki and try some of their other food. And, to drink more too!

Hirome Ichiba

2-3-1 Obiya-machi, Kochi
Kochi 780-0841 (Japanese only)

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