The Wonders of Super Frozen Maguro—and How It Comes to New York

In the spring of 2004, Julia Moskin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Food reporter, wrote an article describing how most sushi fish is actually frozen before it’s served. It was probably the first time New Yorkers read the term “super frozen,” and most sushi lovers in the city were shocked. In the summer of 2015, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene made it a requirement for restaurants that serve raw or undercooked fish to freeze the fish first. Again, most sushi aficionados were unaware of the practice that had already been in place and couldn’t taste the difference between “fresh,” “frozen,” and “super frozen.”

I learned more about these terms—and the practices of the sushi supply chain—while preparing to moderate a panel about Kanagawa Prefecture at Japan Society that will take place on January 23. The event, Get to Know Kanagawa: Hot Springs, Zen, and the Great Wave, features the home of Hakone, Kamakura, and the inspiration for Hokusai’s famous ukiyo-e print. It’s also where the fishing town of Misaki, known for its maguro, the Japanese term for bluefin tuna, is located.

“Maguro Town”

“Misaki is kind of a ‘Maguro Town.’ In Tokyo and Central Japan, if they hear ‘Misaki,’ everybody imagines ‘maguro,’” says Masa Ishibashi, Vice President of Misaki Megumi Suisan Co., Ltd, a fishing company that has more than 50 years of experience in the maguro business. Ishibashi’s grandfather was a fisherman, and Ishibashi’s father started the company in 1968.

“At the time, there were so many maguro vessels in the Misaki ports, but now the number of maguro vessels is decreasing,” says Ishibashi. Fifty years ago, 600 vessels for tuna catching could be seen in the waters, which is located near the southern tip of Kanagawa Prefecture, about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo. Ishibashi explains that while Korean and Chinese vessels are increasing in the area, Japanese government policy restricts the number of Japanese vessels to around 200.

But demand for maguro is still high, especially in countries outside of Japan. Since Ishibashi started working for his father in 2014, Misaki Megumi began tapping this market, and now the company exports high-quality maguro around the world. Under Ishibashi’s guidance, Misaki Megumi participates in seafood exhibitions and trade shows in places such as Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Boston, and LA to create new business contacts. Ishibashi says he is able to supply maguro to so many markets because of super frozen techniques.

OKOZUSHI lunch dish using super frozen maguro

Fresh vs Frozen

Before I dive into the details of super frozen maguro, I wanted to see how New Yorkers viewed “fresh” versus “frozen” sushi 16 years after Moskin’s article and four years after the regulations were in place. In early December, I visited OKOZUSHI by Megumi, an affordable take-out sushi restaurant in Brooklyn that’s owned in part by Misaki Megumi.

Super Frozen poster at OKOZUSHI

While customers waited for their take-out orders, we offered them a piece of freshly sliced super frozen maguro and asked them to describe what they thought of the taste. Customer Yelena, who is originally from Moscow, said that the maguro “tastes fresh,” is “soft,” and “has a great texture.” After explaining to her that the fish had actually been frozen before it was served to her, she says, “My first reaction was, ‘Why is it frozen!?’ But it makes sense.” She noted that being from Moscow, she knows that extremely cold temperatures kill viruses. One of the benefits of the super frozen technique is that it kills parasites in the fish.

Allen, another OKOZUSHI customer, says that he and his cousin enjoy going to Mitsuwa whenever there is a tuna-cutting demo to sample the different parts of the fish. He understands that there is a law requiring the freezing of fish before serving in restaurants, “but I didn’t realize it kept the texture and flavor of maguro so intact. This has good texture and taste.”

Rodrigo, who is married to a Japanese woman and takes language classes at Japan Society, says, “This does taste fresh. It doesn’t have the fishiness that some sushi you find in New York has. The taste is nice and clean, and I’m sure it goes well with rice as chirashi.”

Benefits of Super Frozen

While “super frozen” may be a relatively new term for sushi lovers in New York, it’s certainly not a new practice in the fishing industry, especially in Japan. Freezing fish immediately after catching has been the standard for decades. The fishing boats that Misaki Megumi hires are equipped with special containers that freeze the freshly caught fish to minus 20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit). Ishibashi exports the fish to Asia by airplane after packing it in dry ice and Styrofoam. He ships the maguro in specially equipped boats to New York, but the distribution process of getting Ishibashi’s tuna to other areas in the US is no easy task. “There are not so many super frozen facilities in the US,” says Ishibashi.

There is one in New Jersey, which is part of the reason why the OKOZUSHI customers with whom I spoke are able to enjoy the fresh taste of super frozen maguro. OS International, a supplier of premium maguro and other seafood from Japan and Asia, is a key piece to the super frozen maguro puzzle. The company’s facility in New Jersey is equipped to handle super frozen imports. Kazuyoshi Narusawa, the New York Branch Director of OS International, explains the difference between “fresh” and “super frozen.”

“With fresh fish, fishermen catch it, take it to the factory, send it to the airport, and the distributor takes it to the market where a chef buys it,” he says. “This is one to two days after catching. It’s still good, but super frozen is better. With super frozen, the fish is caught, put into a super frozen equipped freezer right away in a special container on the boat, gutted and cut into small pieces, and delivered to a market where it’s defrosted. This process rids the fish of parasites and locks in freshness.”

It All Started with Fish Bones

In addition to educating chefs about the best practices in handling the fish to ensure quality and freshness, Narusawa helps run OKOZUSHI. This relationship was born out of a unique partnership that Ishibashi developed with Osakana, a Japanese-style fish market and seafood education center located in Brooklyn.

Fish at Osakana in Brooklyn

In March of 2017, Osakana’s proprietor, Yuji Haraguchi, committed to making 600 bowls of ramen at a pop up at Shin Yokohama Ramen Museum. An advocate of using the entire fish, he wanted to flavor his broth with fish bones and the other parts of the fish that are usually wasted. Ishibashi happened to visit Osakana and offered to supply the bones left over from the maguro his company sells and exports. They kept in touch after Haraguchi’s pop up, and Haraguchi has been helping Misaki Megumi’s business ventures in New York.

“Part of what makes Ishibashi’s tuna so good is that it’s super frozen,” says Haraguchi.

The process of getting super frozen maguro from Kanagawa to New Jersey to Brooklyn is complicated and involves several knowledgeable experts down the line. Ishibashi, Haraguchi, and Narusawa are just three of the people who are dedicated and passionate enough to make it happen.

OKOZUSHI will prepare a maguro poke bowl for Japan Society’s Kanagawa event, so guests can taste for themselves, but perhaps the best way to describe super frozen maguro is to echo the sentiments of Nick, another OKOZUSHI customer: “It’s damn good.”

Maguro poke bowl

Ticket Info

The Talks+ Program Get to Know Kanagawa: Hot Springs, Zen, and the Great Wave takes place on Thursday, January 23 at 6:30 p.m. Two other supporting events take place on Monday, January 27. Purchase a ticket to Get to Know Kanagawa: Hot Springs, Zen, and the Great Wave or Kamakura Zen: A Samurai Legacy and receive a $5 discount for Japanese Self-Care: Me-byo! Please visit Japan Society’s website.

Other Related Links:

  • “Sushi Fresh from the Deep … the Deep Freeze,” by Julia Moskin. The New York Times, April 8, 2004.
  • “New York City Requires Restaurants to Freeze Raw Fish Before Serving,” by Noah Remnick. The New York Times, July 10, 2015.

JapanCultureNYC is the English-language website dedicated to all things Japanese in New York City. Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.