Like a lot of people in the Baltimore area, Robyn Cincinnati grew up eating fish on Friday. But last Friday, as she bought a fresh Alfonsino, a large red fish that a few days before had been swimming in a Japanese sea, she knew her family supper was going to be different.
"This is going to be a whole new fish-on-Friday Lent experience," she said, adding that her husband, Greg Moore, would probably flash-fry the far-flung fish.
Cincinnati was one of a number of area fish eaters who showed up at a Japanese seafood festival last weekend at the Wegmans grocery store in Hunt Valley. The store flew in seven kinds of ready-to-cook whole fish and 12 seafood items for sashimi sushi from the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. With the fish came a skilled fish cutter, Shinji Sakamoto, a native of Tokyo who plied his craft in a Baltimore is the third American city to be visited by the fish festival. Similar Japanese seafood festivals have been held in Wegmans stores in Rochester, N.Y., and Fairfax, Va., according to John Emerson, corporate executive chef in charge of sushi and Japanese cuisine for Wegmans. One reason the festival came to Baltimore, he said, is that the area is filled with seafood eaters.
The Hunt Valley store sells more sushi and seafood than any of the other 74 Wegmans stores, he said. Who knew?
Like many shoppers, I stopped to gaze at the striking display of exotic fish.
I heard one shopper, however, who was not impressed with the fishy glamour. She asked Ray Popson, the store's seafood manager, if he knew where the Mary Sue Easter eggs had gone. Apparently the Japanese fish had displaced the local chocolate eggs. Popson told the shopper to check the corner of the store.
Adam Lutz was hooked by the fish display. He wandered over to the grocery while taking a lunch break from his nearby insurance office. Once he made eye contact with the dark eye of the red fish, he, too, was taking home an Alfonsino.
"I think I will grill it," said Lutz, who lives in Fells Point. "I am used to eating rockfish and flounder, but this fish looks different," he said.
Generally speaking, there are two types of customers who are drawn to fish festivals like this one, Dave Wagner, director of seafood for Wegmans, told me. "You get Japanese people who miss a taste of home, and you get Americans who see the fish and want to try something unique and different," he said.
Kaori Misono fell into the first category. A native of Tokyo who now lives in Ellicott City, she drove to the Hunt Valley store after some of her Japanese friends alerted her to the arrival of fresh mackerel from the Tokyo market.
She conversed with Sakamoto in Japanese as she watched him fillet and skin her mackerel. She said she was going to put a little ginger on the fish and have it as sushi, she said. This is a treat, she said, because finding sushi-quality mackerel is usually difficult. She also kept the head and bones of the mackerel to make soup.
Most Japanese ask for the bones and head, while most Americans do not, Emerson told me.
"The Japanese will pay $24.99 a pound for yellowtail," he said gesturing to a large, torpedo-shaped fish, "and $19.99 a pound for its bones."
While working with Sakamoto and other Japanese fishmongers, Emerson said, he has been impressed with the detailed, almost reverential way they handle fish.
"I compare them to the Swiss, they are so disciplined in their handling of the food," Emerson said, For instance, he said, the Japanese are careful how they kill a fish, making sure it is bled correctly so that the body does not curl. Moreover, he said, they are very careful when removing the bladder from the fish. If the bladder breaks and leaks onto the flesh, a Japanese fishmonger would not sell the fish.
Popson, the store's seafood manager, said the fish brought in for the festival were caught or raised in ways that merited the title "sustainable seafood." Some customers ask how the fish are caught, he said, but more ask how the fish should be cooked.
The cooking question was on the mind of Arianna Miceli as she listened to Emerson explain yosenabe, a Japanese method of cooking seafood and vegetables in one pot filled with boiling dashi soup stock.
He said the stock is boiled in a pot, then clams are added and allowed to simmer for two minutes. Then seafood such as pieces of salmon is added and simmered for one minute, then Japanese vegetables are put in to cook for about two more minutes. Everything is done, he said, when the temperature of the seafood registers 145 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.
Miceli nodded and picked up a package that contained all the ingredients needed for the meal.
"I am excited," she said of her plans to feed her family a yosenabe dinner. "I like the combination of ingredients."
Her 12-year-old son, Cyrus, a sixth-grader at Friends School, "is a real good fish eater," she said.