A ‘Fish Master’ on Eating Tuna (and Other Fish) Responsibly
The accolade required hours of classes every week for four months: In 2009, Nick Sakagami of Los Angeles became the only person outside of Japan to be certified as an osakana meister, or fish master. He can identify every fish species and hundreds of subspecies by taste, feel, sight and smell. And he has expertise in tuna.
Mr. Sakagami, 50, who was born in Tokyo, owns seafood importing and consulting businesses and believes he has a responsibility to share what he knows with consumers and the seafood industry. He talks to wholesalers about sustainable fishing and good import practices. He persuaded high-end restaurants like Per Se and Del Posto to import a new variety of tuna, kindai bluefin, that is grown by scientists in Osaka, Japan, using only the healthiest practices.
“People need to tell the story of fish and let them get excited,” he said. “If I don’t do it, who is going to do it?”
Here are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Sakagami.
Why dedicate your life to seafood?
I started working for a seafood wholesaler part time, and I found myself enjoying and dealing with the fish. My entire body smelled like fish, and I would have to wake up at 1 a.m. to get to work, and sometimes I would go to work without any sleep at all. But when I started handling the fish, I wasn’t tired; I would get so excited.
Where are the best places for tuna lovers to travel?
The best tuna comes to Japan. But my favorite place to visit for tuna is Tahiti. They have this dish where they take raw tuna and marinate it in coconut milk and diced tomato. It is so visually stunning, and the flavor was wonderful. It might be different than the taste we are used to, but once you get over that, you will be part of a local tradition going back generations.
I also went scuba diving in Tahiti and saw tuna in their natural environment. The tuna had very big eyes and locked me into them. We were staring at each other.
What other dishes have you tried?
The Mediterranean, especially Italy, has crudo, which is tuna sashimi in olive oil. And in the Marshall Islands, in the capital of Majuro, the hotel I was staying in had an omelet where instead of including meat, they had tuna cubes. That was amazing.
What about other fish?
The very best fish comes from places like Norway, Japan and Canada, where warm currents meet cold currents. The movement stirs up the waters, creating a variety of plankton. That’s eaten by a greater variety of fish, so there are many types to try.
How can travelers navigate sustainability and other issues?
People say don’t eat bluefin tuna because it’s going extinct, but it depends on which region you are in. Atlantic bluefin tuna stock is in much better shape than Pacific bluefin. I would avoid the latter, especially in places like Mexico, because there are too many loopholes in their fishing policy.
Bluefin tuna is really good in cold countries like Iceland, Norway and Scotland. The cold water means fish have to eat fat to survive; that is a natural way to get lots of flavor.
Eat how local people are eating. If you are on a remote island and people are eating tuna, it means that it is probably caught from the nearby ocean, it should be good and it has a low carbon footprint.
What about in less remote spots?
There are quick ways to know if a restaurant is good. Ask the server where it comes from. If he or she doesn’t know, that’s a bad sign.