Conveyor belt sushi (kaiten sushi or Kaiten zushi) is a cheap sushi restaurant where plates carrying sushi travel past customers via a conveyor. It it more or less self-service, with customers choosing the plates of sushi they want to eat. You make own green tea at the table. Gari is pickled ginger in vinegar, sugar, and salt. It’s all-you-can-eat at the conveyor belt sushi restaurant. You can find the price by the color of the plate. If you cannot find your desired sushi on the conveyor belt, you can order. Some kaiten-sushi restaurants have touch screen displays for placing an order.
No people in the world love squid more than the Japanese. Squid ranks third in import volume behind shrimp and tuna. Squid is brought to Japan from the oceans all over the world. There are between 400 and 500 species of wild squid on Earth. Some, like the pygmy cuttlefish, are tinier than 3 millimeters while the giant squid is over 10 meters.
There are about 100 species of squid that live in the waters surrounding Japan. Surume ika (Japanese common squid) makes up the highest volume of domestic-caught squid. It is used as a Yari ika or Surume ika topping in eastern Japan, but Surume ika isn’t used very often in western Japan. At sushi restaurants, squid like Sumi ika (Golden cuttlefish), Aori ika (Bigfin reef squid), Kensaki ika (Swordtip squid) and Mongou ika (Ocellated cuttlefish) go for high prices, but they are all caught in smaller quantities and therefore only available to high-end sushi restaurants that can procure them fresh.
There are some conveyor belt sushi restaurants that list Mongou ika (モンゴウイカ又はカミナリイカ) on the menu, but actually serve European common cuttlefish (ヨーロッパコウイカ). It is produced in the waters off the coast of West Africa. Even some sushi restaurants do this. This is actually still too pricey for conveyor belt sushi though. What is generally used at conveyor belt sushi is Flying squid (アカイカ), which goes for only 1/10 the price of the European common cuttlefish and reaches 60 cm in length. Jumbo flying squid (アメリカオオアカイカ) is also often used. The Jumbo flying squid is more than twice as long as the Flying squid and exceeds 1 meter in length. The Jumbo flying squid is mainly imported from places on the other side of the world such as Chile and Mexico. The thickness of the meat is similar to Mongou ika. However, a big drawback is that the Jumbo flying squid lacks the sweetness peculiar to squid. Therefore, it is soaked in water that has been artificially sweetened. This alters the dried out sensation to a plump, moist sensation, making the customer believe it is Mongou ika.
The squid must have a certain thickness in order to masquerade as Mongou ika. Rhomboid squid (ソデイカ), which has a torso length of 80 cm is also disguised as Mongou ika. Rhomboid squid is found in the warm waters of the world and is even caught in relatively high volume in Japan. Large squid have a low price cost, so it’s good for the shops to make a profit. Furthermore, the sweetness is brought out more when frozen first than by serving it fresh. That means it can be used as Mongou ika without any need for the artificial sweeteners used in Flying squid and Jumbo flying squid.
The fact is that there are many substitute products for Mongou ika. But even so, it doesn’t change the fact that using ingredients disguised as others is an unacceptable practice.
It goes without saying, that each type of fish has its very own scientific name. However, in places like the Toyosu Fish Market, there are seafoods that end up sharing a name.
The official Japanese name of ama ebi (sweet shrimp) is “Hokkoku Akaebi” (scientific name: Pandaluseous Makarov).
In Japan, ama ebi lives naturally along the Sea of Japan coast and the coasts of Hokkaido, and the ama ebi sold at Toyosu market is caught from Toyama prefecture and northward to Hokkaido and southward. When made into nigiri sushi, it is harmonious with the acidity of the vinegared rice and the thick sweetness is irresistible. It really lives up to its “sweet” name.
However, what dominates the Toyosu Market is frozen shrimp of the same pandalidae family, called “Honhokkoku Akaebi” (scientific name: pandalus borealis kroyer) from Iceland and Greenland.
This is distributed as “Ama ebi” at the market, but strictly speaking it is a different type of shrimp. As far as appearance goes, it is impossible to tell the difference and they say that even the flavor is the same.
The majority of ama ebi used at conveyor belt sushi is produced in Greenland and imported to Japan through China. The reason for this import circumvention is that the processing to turn the shrimp into ready-made sushi toppings is done using inexpensive labor in China. The frozen ama ebi is thawed in China, processed (head, shell, etc., are removed) and then frozen again. Of course, this process diminishes the freshness of the fish. Preservatives are used to help prevent this. For example, pigment fixing agents are used in order to reduce discoloration from fading. Furthermore, acidity regulators and antioxidants are used to prevent changes in the quality and color of the meat. Ama ebi is stored in packs of 50, imported en masse to Japan, and can be used for sushi or sashimi immediately upon thawing.
As this ama ebi caught in the North Atlantic Ocean is considerably cheaper than domestic ama ebi, the reality is that conveyor belt sushi wouldn’t survive in Japan without these imports.
Black Tiger is in the category of the largest shrimp that is part of the Kuruma Ebi family and grows to be up to 30 cm. Black Tiger gets its name from the fact that it looks black before it is heated and has stripes like a tiger. The official name in Japan is “Ushi Ebi” but the reason is unknown. The Black Tiger is cultivated heavily in places like China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and India. It started to be imported from Taiwan in the 1980s to compensate when Japan’s shrimp consumption could no longer be covered by Kuruma Ebi. At the peak, it accounted for 40% of Japan’s shrimp imports. There is a strong impression of shrimp being imported, but small Black Tiger can actually be caught in Japan from Tokyo Bay southward.
Black Tiger has a strong sweetness and firm meat but maintains its plumpness even when cooked with heat. It is known for the red color that appears when heated. The appearance and texture when eating Black Tiger is said to be similar to Kuruma Ebi, which is known to be a shrimp of luxury, so it is a very popular shrimp in Japan. It is used not only as a sushi topping, but in a wide variety of dishes, such as for deep-fried shrimp or Tempura.
For sushi restaurants, shrimp that has been boiled and had the head and shell removed is imported in vacuum-sealed bags. Once defrosted, it can be used as a sushi topping without any further preparations. At conveyor belt sushi restaurants it was even once presented as Kuruma Ebi.
One problem with Black Tiger, which is the mainstream farmed shrimp, is that it has little resistance to illness, and cannot be farmed in the same place continuously. Therefore, Black Tiger farming volume has dropped and currently Vannamei Ebi (Whiteleg shrimp) is becoming a major force in shrimp farming.
The official name of Mirugai is “Mirukui”. The part of the Mirugai that is used as a sushi topping is the siphon that bulges out from the shell. The siphon is separated from the shell and then this is cut through longways, from top to bottom. One Mirugai can only produce four pieces of sushi. It is also nearly extinct from overfishing. While it can still be caught in the Seto Inland Sea and Mikawa Bay, there are fishing limits, which means it is an ultra-high-priced sushi topping.
However, most conveyor belt sushi restaurants offer Mirugai at reasonable prices. The topping on these is quite white. In conclusion, this shellfish is actually Shiromiru (also known as Namigai or Japanese geoduck) and is mainly found in Aichi and Chiba. As the name suggests, the siphon is larger than Mirugai and whiter (“shiro” means “white” in Japanese). There is a certain flavor that is peculiar to shellfish that live in sandy terrain, which some people like and some people hate. However, at less than half the price of Mirugai, it makes a decent substitute.
Unfortunately, the number of Shiromiru is also declining. Now, in order to fulfill demand, Pacific geoduck is being imported from places like Canada and the U.S. and is also called Shiromiru at the Toyosu Market.
Immature salmon eggs still wrapped in ovarian membrane and salted are called sujiko. Ikura is salmon roe in which each mature egg is separated from the ovarian membrane before laying the eggs and then salted or marinated in soy sauce. The ikura of Chum salmon going upstream in the Kushiro River and Tokachi River in Hokkaido From October to December are considered to be premium ikura.
For cheap ikura, roe broken up inside the ovarian membrane in a fish that is approaching spawning time called “barako” is used. When the ovarian membrane of barako is torn, the eggs will fall out and scatter, so while they don’t take much work to prepare for serving, they also don’t taste particularly good. Even cats turn up their noses at barako, so they are also called “neko-matagi”, which literally means “the cat walks over it” and is used to refer to unpalatable fish. However, each egg is large and they look very appealing, so they are used at higher-end conveyor belt sushi. Unlike the 100-yen (US $1) restaurants, these higher-end restaurants don’t use disguised fish or substitute fish. This is because their basic business strategy is to differentiate themselves by attracting customers with authentic toppings. Generally they market the high quality of their toppings, but the ikura is actually this cheap “neko-matagi”.
Beneath this strategy of attracting customers with authentic toppings is this “Deceptive business strategy”. Salmon also swims upstream in the rivers of Tohoku and Hokuriku. However, the taste of ikura tastes inferior to that in Hokkaido. This ikura is also served at the higher end restaurants. That’s because although it doesn’t taste as good, it’s orthodox ikura. In case of orthodox ikura, the roe is used within one hour of the catch. But, if time passes and the freshness drops, the eggs will dry out and the surfaces will dimple, wrinkling. This is the type of ikura that is cheaper and often served at the cheap conveyor belt sushi restaurants.
The most commonly used roe in conveyor belt sushi restaurants is ikura from cheap Alaskan or Russian Chum salmon. An even cheaper type is masuko. Besides the masu roe, raw materials included soy sauce, salt, fermented seasoning, amino acids, reduced sugar syrup, enzymes, fish sauce, and fish and shellfish extract. For homemade versions, only soy sauce, mirin (sweet cooking sake) and sake are used.
You probably already know this, but “toro tuna” is not the name of a type of fish. “Toro” is the name of a fatty part of the tuna. The fat content and attributes of the belly side of the tuna are completely different from that of the dorsal side. Toro is the name of the part near the head, mostly on the belly side.
In the same way, there is no fish called “toro salmon”. Just like tuna, “toro” refers to the fatty part on the belly side of the salmon. It is also called “harasu” in Japanese. This is how the word is used at some scrupulous sushi restaurants. This description of “toro salmon” is correct.
Most salmon used at conveyor belt sushi restaurants is either trout salmon or Atlantic salmon. The reason this salmon can be served at the cheap price of US $1 or $2 per plate (2 pieces of sushi) is that these particular fish are all farmed and are available in bulk quantities from overseas. This salmon is mainly imported to Japan from Norway, Chile, Scotland and Canada.
Actually, the popular “toro salmon” topping is made from these imported items and the fat content is three times that of wild salmon. Feeding farmed salmon plenty of solid compounded feed that is high in protein and high in fat, turns the entire body to toro.
Salmon, which are born in freshwater and migrate downstream to the sea are called “sea-run fish” and they may be farmed in either seawater or freshwater. Trout salmon is “former” rainbow trout that was raised in a fish cage in the sea. In the wild, the sea-run rainbow trout grows up to 1 m in length, its body turns silver and the meat takes on a red color. The wild version of these are called “steelhead” and fetch a high market price, so they are not used in conveyor belt sushi restaurants.
Just like other aquaculture, salmon farming faces some difficult issues. It may surprise you that salmon is actually a white fish, originally. In the wild, the salmon meat gets a red color from feeding on crustaceans such as crab and shrimp that contain the red pigment astaxanthin. However, in the fish cages where the salmon are surrounded by nets, the food chain is also restricted. The compound feed would be plenty if the goal was only to raise bigger fish, but that results in a grey color or light yellow meat that doesn’t even resemble the salmon pink (orange?) that everyone wants and they don’t sell.
Therefore, when making the solid compounded feed, artificial coloring is mixed in. One of the colorings is called canthaxanthin. This is a synthetic chemical derived from petroleum. There is a color chart with 10 different, detailed levels of red coloring and buyers can even indicate which color they would like and the farmers can achieve it. It’s kind of like an industrial product that is being manufactured. Japanese people prefer a dark red color for salmon in the same way they do for tuna, so the coloring for Japan’s market is adapted to that.
When light is shone on wild salmon, the red coloring looks faded, but the light makes farmed salmon that have been fed coloring, look brighter. Artificial coloring is a necessity in farmed salmon and this is true for the trout salmon and Atlantic salmon that are used as the ingredients for toro salmon as well. All of the farmed salmon in circulation have been colored in this way, so much so that it wouldn’t be surprising if the insides of their stomachs were stained red. The flamingos at zoos also get their beautiful pink feathers from these chemicals.
Trout salmon is rainbow trout that has been farmed in the sea. On the other hand, rainbow trout farmed in freshwater is called Donaldson trout. Of all the large rainbow trout gathered at each location, those with small heads and fat bodies were selected and bred over many years to create this type. The objective of choosing a small head is to make more meat. They are characterized by their fast growth and while normal, farmed rainbow trout grow to about 30 to 40 cm, Donaldson trout grow up to nearly 1 m. The name is taken from the American who developed this variant.
The Donaldson trout is farmed throughout Japan and is used as toro salmon and aburi salmon at conveyor belt sushi restaurants. Since they are supplied directly to the processor (of the salmon) from the farmer without going through the market, they may be sold cheaper than the import price. Just like the imported salmon, this farmed salmon is also fed artificial coloring. There are also already new variants improved from the Donaldson trout being bred. Trout made from breeding Donaldson trout females and steelhead males are called Donaldson steelhead, for instance. They grow even faster.
Ample use of the latest biotechnology has been made in salmon farming and some of these technologies include creating young fish without functioning reproductive organs, “triploids” which means increasing the size of the fish up to triple and “all female populations” where males are converted into females. The triploid fish grow large in correlation to the lack of energy exertion. The objective of all-female populations is to get more masuko (ovaries). Masuko is used for the ikura (salmon roe) at conveyor belt sushi, and since the fish that the roe is harvested from have an inferior flavor, they are used for aburi salmon. Now, there are even triploid, all-female farm populations. No wonder the restaurants can serve a plate (2 pieces) of salmon sushi for US $1.
The simple phrase, “toro salmon” contains so much meaning.
When you see “tai” on the menu at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, it’s very likely that is not “madai” (Red sea bream). It’s a competitive industry where these conveyor belt restaurants have no problem using a variety of imitation or replacement fish if it means they can cut costs. In any case, the purpose for using different types of fish without even considering farmed cheap madai, is to further reduce costs.
First on the list is Nile tilapia. This fish was introduced from Egypt to rivers throughout the world as food in 1962. While it was farmed in large quantities in Japan, especially in Kagoshima, from the 1990s, production rapidly declined with the stagnant prices of farmed madai. However, they are extremely fertile and proliferate naturally, and started living in the thermal regions and the rivers where warm wastewater flow throughout Japan.
The commonly used names for this is “izumidai” or “chikadai”. While izumidai (Nile tilapia) is a freshwater fish, it was likely named after “tai” (sea bream) because of the similarities in appearance. In Taiwan, it is considered to be so similar in appearance and taste, that it is called “Taiwanese sea bream”. It is a popular fish for consumption on a global scale with high production and distribution volume.
However, even though has “sea bream” in the name, it is not actually related to the sea bream at all.
As an aside, at least 90% of the tilapia found in the U.S. is imported. Most of those imports come from China. It’s often said that they are raised on a large volume of antibiotics and pesticides, and they are kept fresh using high amounts of chemicals. It’s best to avoid eating it if possible. The tagline they give it is “Sushi grade tilapia is a high quality, firm fish with a mild, clean taste perfect for sashimi and sushi applications” You’ll be hard-pressed to even find kaiten sushi restaurants using this in Japan. In addition, it would never be used at restaurants that describe themselves as Edomae Sushi.
There is only one trick to distinguishing between conveyor belt sushi restaurants (kaiten-zushi), and that is to try eating the tuna as your first dish.
Why is that, you ask?
The most commonly used ingredient at kaiten-zushi is tuna. At kaiten-zushi, the tuna is imported and frozen nearly 100% of the time. The most famous is the Southern blue-fin tun, but you’ll also find Boston bluefin tuna, Canadian tuna farmed in fish preserves, inland sea tuna from Turkey and Spain, New Zealand offshore tuna, Atlantic tuna, etc. Also, the season of each type of tuna and the timing of high-volume catch differ, which makes the prices fluctuate greatly.
Therefore, the biggest task of a kaiten-zushi chain buyer is to decide where to import tuna from. Looking for high cost-performance, they watch fluctuations in the market every single day without fail, check the flavor in detail and constantly change the locality.
In other words, the chain restaurant purchaser’s efforts are concentrated on tuna. Restaurants that serve tuna that has lost its fat, is watery or rubbery, clearly either have a purchaser with a poor eye, or poor thawing skills. Therefore, if you are disappointed with that first tuna plate, then reign in your expectations for other toppings. On the other hand, if you enjoy the tuna then you’ll have a lot of other toppings to look forward to.
One of the common ingredients of sushi rolls is imitation crab. In Japan this is called kanikama, in Europe, it’s called surimi and in the US it’s also called fake crab.
I’m sure everyone reading this has tried it before, but what is imitation crab made of?
It seems kanikama was invented in Japan. In the early 1970s, Sugiyo, a fish paste manufacturer, in a failed attempt to developed artificial jellyfish, ended up with a product that had a texture exactly like crab and shifted development to that instead.
The “kani” of “kanikama” means “crab”. “Kama” is an abbreviation of kamaboko, which is boiled fish paste, fish sausage, or fish cake. Its official name is “crab-like kamaboko”. The main ingredient is minced fish meat mashed into a paste. One of the whitefish used in Alaska pollack. But it contains no crab. Incidentally, there is actual crab in the kanikama sold in the US and Europe.
It has now become a staple not only in sushi rolls, but also in sandwiches or on baguettes and even on takeout salads. It’s become even more popular than it is within Japan.
The tiny red balls around the outside of the rice on California rolls are Tobiko (飛び子). Specifically, they have salted roe of flying fish and are known for the plump, crunchy texture. This crunchy texture comes from the skin, which is relatively tough, even compared to other fish eggs. As the roe is made up of small eggs of only 1 to 2 mm, each one bursts as you bite, without leaving the outer skin in your mouth, so you can enjoy a nice texture that you won’t find with any other fish roe. Unlike the orange-colored tobiko sold in stores, natural tobiko has a pale golden color with a sense of transparency. Therefore, some processors have dubbed it “golden caviar”.
The main production areas are Indonesia and Peru, and in small quantities, Taiwan as well. The eggs from Indonesia are smaller than those from Peru. If you don’t like the skin remaining in your mouth then the Indonesian tobiko is recommended. Meanwhile, Peruvian roe has larger eggs and thus the skin is tougher, giving it an excellent firmness.
Freshly harvested flying fish roe gives you not only the satisfying popping texture like bubble wrap, but also a sense of the subtle aroma unique to fish roe. This combined with the saltiness of the sea gives you the same sort of umami found in tarako and ikura. Also, Tobiko sold at stores has even more added flavor. This is used for making hand-rolled sushi at home.
In fact, it is a registered trademark of a seafood processing company called Kanetoku, located in Hyogo prefecture, Japan. It isn’t hard to see that it’s an abbreviated version of the Japanese “Tobiuo no ko”.
Tobiko is rich in nutrients such as the minerals and vitamins potassium, phosphorus, vitamin E, vitamin C and niacin. Also, since it has a natural pigment composition called astaxanthin, which gives tobiko its bright color, it has antioxidative effects and is effective in strengthening the immune system. While Ikura has 272 kcal per 100 g, Tobiko only has 74 kcal per 100 g, adding a health factor to its charm.
What is flying fish?
Flying fish are found in the subtropical to temperate waters of the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic Ocean. They travel along the surface of the sea and eat zooplankton. Over 50 types of flying fish have been identified around the world. More than 30 of these have been identified in Japan, of which 4 types are used as food. Since the meat is white, low in fat, and has little odor, it is prepared in various ways such as sashimi, minced, grilled with salt, and fried. In Kyushu, flying fish is called “ago,” and it is dehydrated to be used as soup stock, called “dashi” in Japanese. Ago dashi has a refined and refreshing sweetness and a deep flavor, and it is considered to be on the higher-end of dashi stock.
The dorsal side of the flying fish is a vibrant dark blue, and the ventral side is silver The pectoral fin is considerably longer at about 30-40 cm long. It uses it pectoral fins to fly over the water’s surface to escape from its natural enemies, such as tuna Depending on the breed, it can fly an average of 200 m in one go. The larger the species, the longer distance it can fly and the longest can be up to even 600 m. Furthermore, the flying fish has no stomach and its other digestive organs are short and straight, which makes its body lighter and ideal for extended flight.
Flying fish contains a lot of a nutrient called Niacin which can help prevent hangovers. Additionally, it is rich in vitamin E, which works to prevent the oxidation of unsaturated fatty acids in the body, and as such is a good fish for preventing lifestyle-related diseases such as arteriosclerosis and myocardial infarction.
On the other hand, an orange-colored tobiko is often seen at conveyor belt sushi restaurants, etc., but this is the roe of a fish called capelin (カペリン), which is similar to shishamo smelt. A salted version of this is used for sushi rolls in the US and other places, where it is called masago. Compared to tobiko, the grains are smaller and the texture is a bit chewier. It is mainly rich in EPA (Omega-3 fatty acids) and collagen.
“Masago (真砂子)” actually means “fine sand” and therefore is used for foods that depict that image. In other words, it refers to broken-up fish roe and doesn’t indicate a specific type of fish. Dishes made using capelin roe can be called masago, but please keep in mind that dishes with broken-up tarako or kazunoko are also called masago.
What is capelin?
The shape of capelin is very similar to shishamo smelt, but the scales are very fine, barely visible to the eye. The body is a bluish silver color with an average length of 12-16 cm, but can grow up to 20 cm.
It is found in a wide area from the Arctic Ocean to the frigid sea regions and also migrates to the Sea of Okhotsk on the coast of Hokkaido. The time they spawn depends on the region. The season for Canadian capelin is June to mid-July, and the season for Icelandic and Norwegian capelin is mid-February to mid-March.
They are also known as Komochi Shishamo (Shishamo with child) and are known to have a wonderful balance of fat and roe. Compared to shishamo smelt, they are leaner and have a lighter texture. Shishamo smelt is not caught in great numbers, so capelin started to be imported as a substitute for it for Japanese homes and izakaya (Japanese bar/restaurants).
Capelin rush to the coastal area in large groups to lays eggs on the sandy bottom of the beach during spawning season. The amount of eggs it lays at one time is about 5,000 to 6,000. It has spherical, adhesive demersal eggs with a diameter of around 1 mm. The eggs hatch around spring tide about 2 weeks after spawning The total length of larvae immediately after hatching is 4-5 mm, and it is thought that they leave the coastal area by utilizing waves at high tide and reach a total length of around 10 cm in the first year of life.
Capelin is a healthy fish that can be eaten in its entirety, and boasts 7 nutrients (DHA, EPA, calcium, zinc, potassium, vitamin B2, collagen). Moreover, since the sugar content is only 0.5 g per fish, about 1/3 of the amount normally contained in fish, it is perfect for those who are dieting.
If you come across wholesale Tobiko and Masago, it was likely purchased at the Toyosu Market. The reason for the ambiguous expression here is that you will rarely find nigiri sushi with tobiko or masago at sushi restaurants with counters. There may be some sushi restaurants that have tobiko or masago on their standard menu, but there are fewer than ten of those restaurants in Tokyo. In other words, in Japan, tobiko and masago are mainly used for kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi) and izakaya restaurants.
Finally, we’ll let you in on a not-so-pleasant secret. Flying fish and capelin roe is actually a light yellow or beige color. However, you’ll find it in bright red, orange, yellow and lately even green or black. Of course, these are colored by either natural pigments or synthetic coloring. Furthermore, tobiko is sometimes mixed with the cheaper capelin or herring roe. Unfortunately, food fraud is common in seafood products that are consumed in high quantities.