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Sushi - eating fish responsibly

If you think over-fishing is a myth, take a look at your supermarket shelves and check out the prices for yellowfin tuna. Two decades ago, it wasn’t much more expensive than catfood – now it’s in the luxury section, with jars selling for between £4 and £12.

Demand hasn’t changed, but availability has. There may be plenty of fish left in the sea, but ‘plenty’ is a relative term. Which is a shame, because as we all know, it tastes fantastic; whether prepared raw, seared, singed or confit, the fish is something special... but ‘special’ isn’t a straightforward deal.

Tuna are close to the top of the food chain, which mean that various toxins present in the environment can become concentrated in their muscle flesh, the most notorious being mercury. But do we care? Not at a time when sushi chefs are venerated as culinary demi-gods (if you think I’m exaggerating, Google ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’).

Despite my own fondness for the fish, I cut back on my own tuna consumption a few years ago, partly due to a slow burning guilt complex over overfishing in the Indian Ocean, and partly because I probably had so much mercury coursing through my lower intestine, I was in danger of becoming a human thermometer. But then a holiday in the South Pacific put me back on the heavy metal highway.

I was cooling my heels in the Tahiti Radisson Plaza and the menu was a costly cavalcade of imported luxuries. Tahiti must be one of the most expensive places on the planet – it makes Geneva look like the bad end of the Khao San Road. Anyway, my finger led me down the £60 steak and chips to the local section of the menu, which promised ‘Polynesian Sushi’. It was a simple enough bowl of sushi rice and local tuna of unstated species, glistening like shards of ruby. The colour comes from myoglobin, an oxygen-binding molecule that tuna generate in huge quantities in order to achieve incredible bursts of speed, up to 45 miles per hour. Yes, I know cheetahs and peregrine falcons can shift even faster, but that’s through air. Punching through water at 45mph takes a living missile, and that’s exactly what tuna are. When we eat them, we are consuming a true marvel of nature… along with a fair portion of the periodic table.

Polynesia has a lot of tuna, and not a lot of much else (bizarrely, the locals are addicted to tinned corned beef). So, as my journey continued to the atoll island of Fakarava, I continued my holiday romance with the noble tuna. I was staying with a local family who served tuna and grouper as ‘poisson cru’, marinaded in citrus fruits and coconut milk. And I ordered even more at the little café, Snack Teanuanua, where you could order it in a variety of styles, including one eccentric variant that had sultanas and dry herbs in the mix. I took the latter as a sign… to stop eating tuna.

Back in Blighty, I return to raw fish when the fancy takes me, but I mostly skip (jack) the tuna, replacing it with farmed Atlantic salmon. Big chains such as Yo Sushi give salmon an equal billing on the menu, and it makes excellent nigiri (oblong blocks of rice topped with fish) and futomaki (rolls of rice and seaweed with two or three fillings chosen for their complementary tastes).

Good sushi comes at price, but even upscale places offer lunchtime deals, with an assortment of sushi, sashimi and other treats served in bento boxes. My favourite place for Bento boxes is Matsuba in Richmond, Surrey, a low-key affair run by a friendly Korean family. The sushi is prepared with quiet solemnity and presented as a selection of jewels, which is exactly how we should regard fresh wild fish. As with all the best food, there is attention to detail in every aspect of the dish, from the texture of the rice to the keenness of the pickles and the artistry of the presentation.

Matsuba brews its own soya sauce, which has a savoury depth unequalled by any shop-bought brand. Their pickles, soy and wasabi mustard provide the perfect counterpoint to fresh Atlantic salmon, with its buttery little veins of fat. Salmon doesn’t have to travel all the way from the Indian Ocean, so the fish hasn’t been frozen and defrosted by the time it finds itself on the business end of your chopsticks. These days, I generally ask for the tuna in my bento box to be replaced with salmon. Genuinely wild Atlantic salmon is a rare commodity but farmed organic is a fine substitute, as long as said farming is not overly intensive and takes place in open water where ocean and tidal currents can sweep away associated detritus.

Debates over fish farming are not likely to end, but with bluefin tuna teetering on the brink of commercial extinction and the sustainability of yellowfin fisheries hanging in the balance, responsible farming of alternative species seems to be the way forward.

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