Election Section

Sampling the Fare at Berkeley’s Tokyo Fish Market

By Anna Mindess, Special to the Planet
Thursday August 21, 2008 - 11:21:00 AM
The Tokyo Fish Market provides a wide array of seafood.
Richard Brenneman
The Tokyo Fish Market provides a wide array of seafood.

Just as the islands of Japan float like jewels in the Pacific, the two sister stores of the Tokyo Fish Market are little gems perched in the middle of northwest Berkeley. 

I discovered the Tokyo Fish Market last year after returning from my first trip to Japan. When I saw the rows of glistening fish that looked like they had just leapt out of a wave and landed behind the counter, I wished I had come sooner. Customers like Ray Johnston of Berkeley, who worked in Japan for 30 years, come “for the good selection of fish” and for “foods that are made in Japan because they taste better.”  

Although consumers routinely rave about the freshness of the fish, their fierce loyalty is fed by the family-like feeling between staff and patrons. Tokyo Fish Market was established in 1963 by Isamu and Tazuye Fujita and is now run by their son Larry and co-owner Lee Nakamura.  

Nakamura told me, “We don’t sell fish in pre-wrapped tray packs even though it would be quicker and more convenient … I want to encourage dialogue between the customers and the staff behind the counter.”  

Once you pick out some gleaming halibut, tuna, or snapper, you may look around and feel as if you are in a foreign country with a shelf of mysterious sauces, a wall of ramen, somen, udon and soba noodles, and an ocean of seaweed. The real adventure of shopping at the Tokyo Fish Market is venturing into uncharted territory and sampling unfamiliar ingredients. 

What’s a good first step? Try a bento box, a portable lunch that contains small portions of traditional foods. If you taste something you like you can always come back for more. The fish bento I picked was divided into compartments that held a piece of grilled swordfish and two mini shrimp tempura, with bite-sized servings of green beans in sesame sauce, creamy potato salad, lotus root, burdock root, carrot and yam cake and rice sprinkled with sesame seeds.  

At Japanese restaurants, one of my favorite dishes is tsukemono, or the pickled vegetables that accompany many meals. I thought it would be simple to bring some home. When I found the tsukemono section, however, I faced more than two-dozen different types of yellow daikon radish. With only a minimal list of ingredients in English, I just picked a package holding what looked most familiar: tiny half circular slices that came in a bag of liquid. When I got them home, I was disappointed that they didn’t deliver the crunchy, zingy experience I was seeking. On my next visit, I asked advice from Roger, the grocery manager, who described the different variations, pointed out how the drawings of shiso leaves or ume plum on the package indicated the flavorings within and suggested that I buy a whole radish (over a foot long) and cut off the slices myself.  

Another strategy might be to try a new flavor of an old friend, such as melon or litchi soda, red bean or black sesame ice cream. Or just go straight for the candy. Japanese sweets seem to come in especially cute miniature shapes, koala and panda bears, chocolate mushrooms and tiny pink tipped chocolate strawberries. 

Not only is the staff at Tokyo Fish Market uniformly helpful, so are some of the loyal customers. Miya Kitahara of Berkeley, 25, started coming to the Tokyo Fish Market when she was eight years old, had just moved to California from Japan and missed her favorite candy. She shows me the taffy-like, fruit flavored cubes called Hi-chews that come in a rainbow of flavors. Nowadays, she admits to buying mixes like Mabu Tofu (sort of like a Japanese Hamburger Helper), bento boxes of prepared foods and other quick meals. “But,” she says, “When I have the time, I do make the natto, with raw egg and green onions on rice.” 

Natto may be the most infamous member of the family of traditional Japanese foods. These soybeans are fermented with a specific strain of bacteria and sold frozen in single-serving sealed plastic cups. Once you peel back the lid, their pungent aroma is released, an odor akin to ancient cheese with a hint of ammonia. An excellent source of protein, natto sports claims of additional health benefits, but may take some getting used to.  

Noriko Taniguchi, owner of Norikonoko Restaurant on Telegraph Avenue has been shopping at the Tokyo Fish Market for almost thirty years. She feels comfortable coming here and knows the staff well, “They are like family … I like to tease them.” Larry, the produce manager, will order special things just for her, such as the top quality spinach she uses in her restaurant or a certain type of yam noodles. She holds up the package of thick, opaque noodles flecked with specks of seaweed and explains, “This food is very traditional and good for you, it cleanses out your internal organs. You need to eat it every once in a while.” 

After stocking up on newly discovered delicacies, stop at the gift store that shares the petite parking lot and features items to compliment the food, such as dainty dishes, ingenious cooking gadgets, tea pots, sake sets and cookbooks. Other gift items include a large selection of tabi (divided) socks, lucky cats, daruma dolls (for fulfilling wishes) and the furoshiki (traditional cloths) to wrap up them all up as presents.