We end the morning in the fish market’s kitchen, where it’s warm. Sakata has good news. He has located an ayu.
The fish, though flown in from Japan,is still so firm, clear-eyed, and gleaming fresh, it appears lacquered.“It looks just caught,” says McGee. “Its mucus layer is completely intact. Let’s see if I can get the gills to open up a little bit,” he says, gently lifting the gill flap. “The gills are often the first part of a fish to go. Their red turns brown with oxidation. And since gills are full of bacteria, because that’s where the water is filtered, they can generate unpleasant aromas. So let’s take a sniff.”
He puts his nose to the gills, which are a healthy bright red.
“Ah, I think I smell the melon!” he exclaims. “Can you smell it? I’ve been reading about this fish for years, in the abstract, because I’ve never seen it in a market,” he says in a rush. “In Japan, they’ve analyzed the aroma, because that’s what people say they value most about this fish, and they’ve found some of its compounds are exactly the compounds you find in melons and cucumbers.”
“He knows more about this fish than me,” Sakata says.
“That’s what’s so cool,” says McGee. “Once somebody points out to you that this fish smells like watermelon, all of a sudden there’s another dimension to the experience of eating it.”
Which we do then and there—the fish is simply sprinkled with sea salt and grilled whole. Glenn Sakata splits the fish open like a book, and we goat its mild, surprisingly soft white flesh with chopsticks, enjoying every last sweet morsel. Ayu, the sweetfish. “Who could ask for anything more?” says Harold McGee.
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen An excerpt from the newly revised book by Harold McGee Copyright 1984, 2004. Published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster.