From the homes of fashionable socialites to the tables of famous chefs around the world, there is one gourmet food that is topping the luxury list in 2015: It is the amazing "Otoro" portion of the Bluefin tuna. The "Otoro" is the most valuable cut from the underbelly—called the "Toro"—of the largest species of tuna that is so coveted, that a single fish can sell for millions of dollars at the auction houses of Tokyo. Otoro is so sensual on the tongue that chefs and connoisseurs often prize it above all other foods found in the sea or on land. Yet only a half-century ago, Otoro was unknown to the world, and seldom eaten in Japan. Just how did this newly-discovered delicacy rise to such worldwide stardom in recent years? And how can party planners, socialites, as well as amateur and professional chefs in America obtain this exquisite fish to serve in their homes, and at their events? What follows is a gourmet fairy tale, the story of Otoro…
Every delicacy has its day. While les fromages français are bien passés, and white truffles have gone their way, we still cherish fondly our champagne wishes and caviar dreams. But while Beluga and Cristal will certainly please, they will not make a home chef famous among friends, nor turn a social gathering into the talk of the season.
Today you will find the wishes and dreams of gourmet chefs and hosts frequently revolving around one question: where to obtain fresh, Grade #1+ Bluefin Otoro. These chefs and connoisseurs not only want to serve it to their guests, but they are longing to experience the highest quality of this delicacy for themselves.
"Toro" — underbelly of Bluefin tuna — is an abbreviation of the Japanese: "Toro-keru," which literally means "melting on the tongue." This name is given to the Bluefin's underbelly meat because of its high fat content (fat that is actually quite healthy, and loaded with Omega-3 oils). The Toru-keru "melting" refers to Toro's effect on the taster's tongue, which cannot be compared to any other food. Because the melting temperature of the fat in the Toro is lower than human body temperature, this cut of fish, when placed raw on the tongue, actually sizzles and melts, dissolving almost completely as it fills the taster's senses with a bouquet of flavors and sensual feel that makes caviar pale in comparison.
Bluefin's Toro-keru offers two cuts: There is the Chutoro, which contains less delicious fat and commands the lower price of the two cuts; and there is the Otoro—the fattiest, tastiest, and also the priciest cut of the Bluefin tuna (a fish whose meat, regardless of the cut, sells for more than any other large fish in the world).
Yet while Otoro, in its luxury sashimi grade (Grade #1+), is almost exclusively an experience only to be had in America for those who dine in Michelin-starred restaurants (that is, until this year's launch of Luxe Gourmets' new website changed the gourmet scene, making Grade #1+ Otoro available to all who can afford it), it is only in recent years that this cut of fish has had any demand at all, even in Japan.
In all of the sushi restaurants in Tokyo today, which total about 15,000 in number, raw tuna is by far the most popular, and the most essential, fish. One Japanese sushi chef made the comparison that fresh tuna was as necessary to the Japanese diet as milk is to the American one (if you don't have any in the house, it's time to go shopping!). The tuna, however, didn't become this sacred to the Japanese until the 19th Century.
Fast forward to the 20th Century… The lean and muscular Bluefin tuna loin was hailed by Japanese connoisseurs as the finest cut of their new favorite fish, while the fatty cuts of Otoro, (which today are cherished by millionaires), back then were usually thrown into the cat's dish. Then came WWII and the American occupation of Japan. One thing the Americans taught to the Japanese was the pleasure of eating a big beef steak dripping with fat. So while the working-class Japanese adopted a love of greasy hamburgers, the Japanese wealthy elite began to dine on rich porterhouse steaks. In years to come, as first-class luxury travel brought back newer and newer trends to Japan, the wealthy Japanese learned all of the joys of foods like fois gras, chocolate truffles, and rich, full-cream European cheeses. In Japan, as elsewhere in the world, the wealthy gourmand began to fancy fat! By the 1960s, the lean, muscular loin of the Bluefin tuna commanded a much lower price than the "melting on the tongue" Bluefin Otoro.
Just as America was responsible for raising the price of Bluefin in Japan, so was it responsible for making Japanese cuisine—sushi in particular—one of the most popular foods around the globe. While from the 1970s onward, upper-class Americans delighted in "that savage experience" of placing cool, raw fish into their mouths, the American middle-classes managed, through their new fanaticism pertaining to "all things weight-loss and healthy living" to slowly but surely make sushi the mainstream staple it is in the Western world today. In fact, Japanese cuisine is so popular in cities like Los Angeles, that during the past decade, sushi restaurants have been opening faster, and earning more revenue, than restaurants serving any other cuisine. But while the American middle-classes today devour raw tuna in everything from the semi-delicious "delivery sushi," to the barely-edible, "pre-packaged grocery store sushi," almost none of these sushi lovers have ever tasted the Bluefin species of tuna, let alone, the coveted cut known as Otoro. Even those members of the American upper-middle-class who believe they are among the elite few to have experienced the world's finest tuna because the best sushi bars in their towns boast the phrase "Bluefin Otoro" on their menus, even they have the wool pulled down over their eyes. The difference that luxury connoisseurs know, is that there is Otoro, and there is Otoro… All that glitters is not gold until it's graded.
Tuna grading is a very complex system, and the exact criteria vary depending upon which part of the country, or world, you are in. The grading in larger metropolitan restaurants is much more stringent than in smaller cities. But the basics are as follows: If you find tuna that is Grade #1 (preferably +1, or #1 Fat), you are eating the very best—this is the quality of fish that Japan's greatest chefs cook with. The next grade down on the ladder is a lower quality, less fresh, and duller in color, "A1" ("-1" or "American sashimi grade"). Following A1 is an even more limpid and less lustrous "+2," which means "low-end sashimi grade" (this is the nice way of saying, "although it might not taste good, it probably won't poison you."). From there on down the tuna scale it goes. And the rule of thumb for the lowest grades—from the non-translucent flesh of Grade #2 tuna, to Grade #3 whose meat has the color of brackish water—is the same rule of thumb we usually apply to the tap water in Mexico: "Don't put it in your mouth unless you sterilize it first!"
There was an article by a famous food critic in The New York Times, published about a year ago, where the critic wrote of his "outstanding experience" sampling Otoro for the first time at a very expensive sushi bar in Manhattan. This critic told readers in his good-natured way that he made sure to ask the sushi chef, before eating his fish, if the Otoro was "sashimi grade." The sushi chef smiled, and nodded, and all was right with the world. (And since then, this "sashimi grade" has become a catch-phrase one often overhears in sushi bars across the country). Little do people know, that "sashimi grade" can refer to economy cuts of meat such as "A1" and Grade +2. These cuts may please the American mainstream, but to the elite tastes of Americans who prefer luxury, only Grade #1+ is acceptable. The most likely scenario is that this food critic was not tuna-ignorant. He probably was dining at one of the many sushi bars in cosmopolitan cities that charge a fortune for low-grade tuna, and for whatever reason, he didn't want his readers to know this.
Grade #1+ is the only quality good enough for the fine gourmand. But fortunately and unfortunately, Grade #1 Bluefin Otoro is extremely hard to find outside of Japan. Fortunately, because this adds rarity to this cut of fish, making it one of the noblest and most revered foods that a person will ever have a chance to try. Thus, the chef or host of a dinner party who serves Grade #1+ Otoro will certainly gain instant fame among his or her guests. If you dine out, the only way to make sure your Otoro is Grade #1+ is to go to a top Michelin-starred restaurant. If, however, you are a professional or an amateur home chef, or a socialite who loves to entertain with dinner parties and other events, you can get guaranteed Grade #1+ tuna in all cuts, including Otoro, by shopping at LuxeGourmets.com.