Tsukudani is a type of preserved food that originated on the island of Tsukudajima in Tokyo Bay during the Edo Period, some 400 years ago. At first, local fishermen simply boiled small fish with salt; but over the years soy sauce, mirin and a variety of ingredients were added to the sauce. As tsukudani became gradually more refined, feudal lords living in Edo began to take it home as a souvenir and its popularity spread throughout the country. Large-scale production followed and now it is a Japanese staple, loved by many, with a wide variety of ingredients.
The esteemed tsukudani maker, Tsukuho, has been in business in Koto-ku since the 1950s. Section Chief Iida explained the history of the company: “Mr. Mizutani opened the first factory in 1957 near the Ariake College of Education and the Arts, here in Koto-ku. A fortune-teller advised him to rename the business “Tsukuho” as that would be a more auspicious name. So it has proved over the years. The factory moved near to what is now Ariake Colosseum and then to the present location here in Shinonome.”
“The founder was a man of exquisite taste and discernment who had the most exacting standards for all aspects of the business. That dedication to quality elevated Tsukuho into the top rank of tsukudani makers in the country. He once sent back an entire tank lorry of soy sauce because the flavour wasn’t exactly right. He apologized to the driver, of course . Tsukuho was invited to open a shop inside Kabuki-za in 1983, and when the building was remodeled recently we were one of only two shops invited to return to the refurbished theatre. In 1996, he became the first tsukudani maker to be honoured as a Food Master by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. That’s a great honour.”
So what distinguishes Tsukuho products from those of other makers? “Firstly, all the fish, vegetables, beans and nuts we use are of the highest quality. We buy some of our fish from Tsukiji fish market and source the rest from elsewhere. For example, our small red shrimp come from Kasumigaura in Ibaraki Prefecture. Secondly, the ingredients are simmered in their own unique sauce. Many makers use the same sauce for all their products but we don’t. Each sauce is tailored to the main ingredient, whether it’s goby fish, edible kelp or burdock root. We create a variety of sauces by ourselves that we use for each individual tsukudani. We have around 50 different products so we use a lot of soy sauce.”
“All our products are 100% natural. We don’t use any additives and haven’t since the business began. We don’t sell our products under any other brand names and have only this one shop in addition to the outlet in Kabuki- za.”
“Internet sales are good. Tsukudani is preserved food so it can be kept at room temperature for 45 days. For this reason it’s a perfect gift or souvenir. Asari (short-necked clams) is our top-seller along with Tsukuho Mix which contains clams, kelp and a variety of vegetables. We also have such specialties as squid, cod roe, goby and crucian carp, as well as a wide variety of kelp tsukudani. The ingredients are simmered for around three to four hours and we make between 30 and 50 kilos a day, all told.”
Tsukuho also makes Fukimame, steamed broad beans simmered with sugar that turn a golden colour when cooked. Fukimame were popular with Edo Period samurai who felt the golden colour was lucky, and today the beans are served in celebratory meals. Although not tsukudani, Fukagawa-meshi, the signature dish of the Fukagawa area of Koto-ku is also popular at Tsukuho. A dish of short-necked clams and leeks cooked in miso, or steamed with rice, Fukagawa-meshi is something all visitors to Koto-ku should try.
Dynamic, extroverted executive director Mr. Suzuki gives a tour of the cavernous freezer, kitchens and workspaces, before cooking up a pot of steamed rice with salmon.
He serves up the salmon rice mix with some short-necked clams and dark kombu (edible kelp) tsukudani.
The clams are lightly-flavoured and refreshing, neither too sweet nor too salty. The black kombu is rich, intensely savoury and a perfect match for the salmon rice, which is exceptional.
Another winning product from Tsukuho!
The tsukudani at Tsukuho is the authentic taste of old Edo and Koto-ku. No visit to the nation’s capital can be complete without sampling their delicious and healthy products.
Story and Photos by Stephen Spencer