Ishigakigai is a shellfish found from Kashimanada northward, Hokkaido, from the Kuril Islands to the Aleutian Islands and even on the west coast of North America. It lives off of plankton in the shallow sandy mud bottoms of the sea at depths of about 50 meters.
Aquaculture in Hirota Bay, Iwate Prefecture, has been successful and it started to appear at the Tsukiji Fish Market starting in about 2008, distributed as Ishigakigai. According to brokers, someone in the business at Tsukiji Fish Market misheard “Ishikage” as “Ishigaki” and the name stuck in the market. While Torigai meat looks black, Ishigakigai looks whiter, so it is also called “Shirotorigai”. The official name is “Ezoishikagegai”.
It starts to become common at the market when the Japanese rainy season ends, at the beginning of summer every year, which is around the end of the Torigai season. It then disappears from the market at the end of summer. A number of sushi restaurants start using it as a substitute for Torigai all at the same time, so Ishigakigai nigiri sushi suddenly started appearing on menus. Frankly, it is somewhat conservative as a nigiri topping but is known for the crunchy texture when biting into it. It also has strong sweetness and umami, which goes exquisitely with Shari. The sushi chef slaps the meat in his hand directly before serving to stiffen it–a way to increase the crunchy texture characteristic of shellfish. Naturally this texture is evidence of its freshness.
As the season of availability is short and the production sites are limited, Ishigakigai often fetches a high price. Those up for sale at the Toyosu Market go for $2 to $4 each. Wild-caught Ishigakigai is rarely found on the market, but when they are, the price is double that of the farmed version.
A relative of the Torigai, the Ishigakigai is rich in amino acids such as taurine, glycine and arginine. It is also resilient and can live for days, even outside its shell.
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Revision date: September 7, 2021