You need rich tastes and a deep pocket to enjoy the best cuts of Pacific bluefin tuna, but Donggang’s annual festival is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
By Jules Quartly
For centuries the township of Donggang (sometimes spelled Tungkang) in Pingtung County has been the final port of call for the Pacific bluefin tuna, which returns annually to one of its principal spawning grounds in the southern waters of Taiwan’s Bashi Channel. Romantically, the fish are said to couple in the moonlight so as to avoid the attention of predators during the day, with the male fish leaping out of the water to catch the attention of his potential mate.
After releasing between five and 25 million eggs, depending on the size of the female, the fish shoal up and hitch a ride on the prevailing northern currents as far as California. That is, if they are lucky and have not been caught up in a net or more often hooked on a longline, ending up on a plate as one of the world’s most sought after gourmet dishes.
Aficionados believe bluefin tuna sashimi is the world’s most delectable fish dish and it is certainly one of the most expensive – with a Tokyo restaurateur paying US$1.4 million for a 222-kg fish at auction last year. So prized is fresh-caught Pacific bluefin tuna that hordes of domestic and mainly Japanese tourists make the pilgrimage to Donggang every year for the Pingtung Bluefin Tuna Culture Tourism Festival.
Celebrities, government ministers, and occasionally even the president turn up for the start of the festival. They are pictured, beaming, next to the catch of the day, which hangs by its tail, supine, from a lanyard on the boat of the successful fisherman. Timed to coincide with the tuna run from sometime in early May to July, the moveable feast has become a firm fixture on the Taiwan tourist festival calendar since it first took place 13 years ago.
The visiting gourmands often gather at dawn on the harbor front as the tuna are unloaded by crane from the returning ships. They look on as the fish are taken to the nearby market, weighed, and auctioned off amidst a great hullaballoo. Then they repair to a nearby restaurant to savor the fruit of the seas.
With tuna this fresh, it’s a no-brainer on how to eat it. No preparation or cooking is required beyond paring the choicest cuts, no additives or additions such as soy sauce or wasabi. Top grade tuna sashimi is almost creamy in texture and really does – as advertised – dissolve in the mouth, leaving a fishy tang trace and slight sebaceous residue. When it’s so fresh there’s a palpable jolt of energy, as if the life force of the sea creature was being directly transferred through the act of eating. It’s as natural as can be and even the best chef in the world would surely admit this is as good as it gets.
A rare treat
But get it while you can. Unfortunately, the Pacific bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis) is threatened with extinction. The International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like Species in the North Pacific Ocean suggests the bluefin tuna population is now less than 4% of what it was historically. In November, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) said overfishing was further depleting stocks that had dropped 19-33% over the past 22 years. Responding to this alarming decline, it updated the Pacific bluefin tuna from “Least Concern” to “Vulnerable.”
Jane Smart, global director of IUCN’s Biodiversity Group, said of the new listing: “The growing food market is putting unsustainable pressure on these and other species. We urgently need to impose strict limits on harvesting and take appropriate measures to protect habitats.”
Taiwan is a signatory to the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT) that was set up in 1994. It agreed to scale back fishing but still has the fourth largest “effective catch limit” after Australia, Japan, and South Korea. But up to 80% of Taiwan’s catch ends up on jet planes to Tokyo to help satisfy the huge Japanese demand for bluefin tuna flesh. It’s also a sad fact that fishing limits have been widely ignored and likely will continue to be.
If the bluefin tuna were to die out, it would be a tremendous loss. The species can swim as quick as the cheetah can run, barreling through the sea at an astounding 70km/h. The tuna can achieve that speed because of its supersized gills and a highly evolved heart that helps process oxygen at a turbocharged rate. It is warm-blooded and therefore able to withstand the chill temperatures when it dives as much as a kilometer beneath the waves in search of food. An alpha predator, it ruled the four seas and was dubbed the “king of all fish” by Ernest Hemingway, who knew a thing or two about his subject.
The tuna’s physiology means there’s a preponderance of blood vessels all over its body, and that is what makes the meat red – as opposed to the white flesh of its fishy brethren. The blood is rich in iron, while the meat is packed with long-chain omega-3 fatty acids such as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), said to combat a wide range of diseases, such as cardiovascular and autoimmune problems, cancer, asthma, and even depression. These factors help make the fish not just a tasty treat but a healthy one too – and arguably the most valuable wild animal on the planet.
One 411.6-kg, 2.7-meter-long specimen caught in April this year is thought to be the largest fish ever reeled in on rod and line. As big as a calf elephant, it was caught after a four-hour battle off the coast of New Zealand and could have fetched up to US$2 million at auction, or made about 2,875 tuna sandwiches.
Ending up in a sandwich would have been a waste. So good you must eat it raw, the belly of the beast is referred to as toro, or ohtoro, by Japanese fans of this prized product. There is even a dedicated website (otoro.com), which enthuses over its “sophisticated essence, fantastic composition, and exquisite marbling.”
Making favorable comparisons to the finest sirloin steak, the site says toro technically comes from the underbelly of the tuna toward the head and should ideally be blush pink with oily white lines running through it. Even if you do have rich tastes, it’s a bit like Belgian chocolates – so good you don’t need that many and if you did overeat, it would leave you feeling slightly sick. Better to take your time and savor the toro, then switch to the slightly lower grade chutoro, which derives from the tuna belly in the center and rear and is less fatty. Akami refers to the rest of the tuna meat, neither toro or chutoro. But it’s all good.
Bluefin tuna has been a vital ingredient on humanity’s menu for millennia. There are pictures of bluefin tuna painted on walls by Stone Age artists in Sicily, and the Japanese have hunted the fish for at least 5,000 years. Interestingly, they were not fans until relatively recently. In fact, tuna used to be so abundant and looked down upon that only the near starving would eat its red meat. Even then they would often bury the fish for four days so it would ferment and hide the iron-metal back taste.
It was only in the 1840s that a glut of fish led to street vendors selling tuna as sushi, wrapped in dried seaweed, cooked and vinegared rice, and various vegetables, with a side dish of ginger, the mustard-like wasabi, and soy sauce. Tuna was still ground into cat food up to the 1960s, when the advantages of refrigeration and the growing acceptance of red meat in Japan led to changing opinions and a love for the now increasingly rare bluefin tuna.
Though Westerners are prone to pronounce that just 55% of the tuna is edible, this is in fact a waste of good fish. In Taiwan, practically every part is considered to be a treat and cooked up avidly. Fish heads, of course, make excellent soups or can be steamed; even the gills can be stir-fried, and the lower jaw roasted.
While belly meat is best for sashimi, sushi and nigiri (on vinegared, compressed rice), aburi toro is delicately singed, which heats the fat, intensifies the flavor and makes the flesh even creamier. Another favorite is tuna steak, rimmed with black pepper, which is from the back and has a texture like kobe beef after being fried, or even better, grilled.
Taiwan’s sea capital
Though you can experience the epicurean delights of bluefin tuna in Taipei, for guaranteed freshness there is no substitute for making a visit to Donggang, which has been a port since the 17th century when it was under the sway of Koxinga, the Chinese admiral, scourge of the Dutch, and ruler of Taiwan (part of it anyway).
Both locals and visitors alike keep the restaurant trade busy here. Section three of Guangfu Road – often called “Donggang Seafood Street” – has an array of restaurants on both sides of the road offering relatively inexpensive fare. Zhongshan Road is also famed for its seafood, while Linbian Seafood Street specializes in marine products from nearby Dapeng Bay and the wider county of Pingtung, especially its aquaculture products.
Changes have taken place with an eye on the tourist trade, such as conversion of the former Huaqiao fish market into the less appealingly named Donggang Fishery Port Marine Product Direct Sale Center, on Chaolong Road. What used to be a flourishing and slightly chaotic sales point for the town’s fishing industry is now a 5,000-square-meter kind of upmarket night market with more than 400 stalls selling fresh fish and cooked and specialty dishes. Perched on the top of the Center is a platform with a sprawling view of the harbor and coast.
My personal restaurant of choice, however, is the Rising Dragon (龍興), at 1 Guangfu Road, Lane 362, Section 1 (屏東縣東港光復路一段362巷1號), tel. (08) 833 3428, near the harbor. It’s unpretentious, but clean and well appointed. During the tuna season, it comes into its own as a place to savor the full range of bluefin dishes.
The Pingtung County Government has yet to set a date for the 2015 edition of the Bluefin Tuna Festival, but a spokesman said it would be announced soon. Speaking on behalf of an executive officer, she said tuna catch limits had led to a shift in emphasis for the event. “The Bluefin Tuna Festival is not only about delicious seafood, it’s also about marine conservation and local culture,” she stated.
Donggang’s folk culture has also been incorporated into the annual festival and visitors will typically take in street performances and the township’s major temples, such as the Donglong shrine to Lord Wen. The Donggang Fisheries Museum is also worth visiting, and there are mangrove forests and wetlands to explore.
The township now promotes itself as “Taiwan’s Sea Capital” and the festival features Donggang’s “Three Treasures,” which in addition to tuna includes the sakura or cherry shrimp, as well as oilfish roe. The shrimp are found only in Suruga Bay in Japan and in Donggang, and are known as the “Jewel of the Sea.” Rich in calcium, they can also be eaten raw or very lightly boiled. You won’t find oilfish roe, which has a very powerful taste that lingers long after digestion, anywhere else either. Cut into slices, the roe is accompanied by garlic and radish.
Naturally, bluefin tuna is still the main course, but it’s not the only dish on the menu – an attitude that bodes well for preservation of the king of the seas.