Out of the five types of Amadai that live in Japan, Aka-amadai, Shiro-amadai and Ki-amadai are the three types offered in the markets.
The main characteristics of Aka-amadai are its overall red body, the bright yellow color under the eyes and how part of its fin is a shiny cobalt blue color. Aka-amadai is called “Guji” in the Kansai region and is a vital part of Kyoto cuisine. Ki-amadai has the same silhouette and size as Aka-amadai, but the Ki-amadai has more yellow color in its face and tail fin. They tend to prefer sandy seafloors at depths of 30 to 300 m and live deeper than any other type of Amadai. True to its name, Shiro-amadai is a white color (Shiro means ‘white’) so is also called Shirakawa (which means ‘white skin’).
Shirakawa is considered to be the finest of the Amadai and can cost more than US $100 per kilogram. Aka-amadai costs around US $40 per kilogram. Shirakawa always ranks in the top three fish for market price. Shirakawa has more elasticity than the other two and has rich fat, making it perfect as sashimi or a sushi topping. The umami is so strong that even when served raw, the customer sometimes thinks it’s been prepared using kobujime. The fat between the meat and the skin is sweet and the skin is delicious in its own right, so it can even be eaten as sashimi with the skin left on. The famous production sites include Tsushima in Nagasaki Prefecture and Yawatahama in Ehime Prefecture. They are in season from autumn to winter. However, they say in a catch of 1,000 Amadai, you can only get one Shirakawa, so it is a rare item you won’t often see, even in a high-end sushi restaurant.
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.
Engawa has both a unique, crunchy texture and delightful fat distribution and is said to be the most delicious part of hirame.
But what exactly is engawa?
Engawa is the generally used name for the meat muscle that moves the soft ray of the dorsal and ventral fins of flatfish (such as hirame and makogarei). Most people in Japan think of the hirame version when they hear the word ‘engawa’.
To go into a more advanced level of detail, there are three types of muscles that move the dorsal and ventral fins in fish: the erector spinae, the depressor and the scalene muscles. These muscles are well-developed in fish that move their dorsal and ventral fins often, like flatfish and flounder. Actually, not all three of these types are always consumed. If we look at the way hirame and makogarei are cut for preparation, the slanted muscle is taken to be used for engawa while the erector spinae and depressor are left, affixed to the fin ray, etc. In other words, to be exact, engawa is the slanted muscle of the dorsal and ventral fins.
The unique, crunchy texture comes from the high content of collagen, which is a scleroprotein. “Kakushi boucho” is used to make the crunch pleasant and is one of the skills a sushi chef must perfect. The delicious flavor is related to the high amount of fat compared to body meat. There is also a sense of elegant sweetness. Only four pieces of engawa can be taken from a single flatfish, so it makes sense that foodies love it.
The name “engawa” comes from its resemblance to the unique veranda structure of Japanese-style homes. This veranda is called “engawa” in Japanese.
Incidentally, substitutions have become common at kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurants, and the topping is especially popular among women lately. So the question is, how is it possible to eat this valuable topping that is only rarely available at expensive sushi restaurants, so cheaply at kaiten sushi? Actually, Greenland halibut engawa and Kamchatka flounder engawa are used as substitutes to hirame engawa. The proof of this is in a menu that lists only “engawa” and not “hirame engawa”.
No one is more sensitive to the changing of the seasons than sushi lovers. This must be because the taste of sushi toppings is directly tied to the seasons. There are terms to describe this such as Hashiri (early season), Sakari (in-season) and Nagori (late season), and using these words to understand what state the sushi topping is it allows you to grasp and enjoy the various different flavors. There is nothing that says a sushi topping is less delicious because it has a lower fat content.
For example, everyone wants to get in there and be the first to eat early season toppings. It’s obvious that these would all be toppings with low fat content. But early-season toppings have a liveliness that you can’t find in other foods, and some believe that eating these types of food will give you new vitality.
Once a fish is in peak-season, we eat it as sushi. This is because the fish has grown as it approaches breeding season, gradually gaining more fat, and at this stage in its development it has a richer flavor.
And the ‘holdover’ perhaps means that since the season is about to end, we need to get our fill now. While we may feel a bit sad that the season is ending, we can look forward to it coming around again the next year.
On the other hand, there are sushi toppings that don’t seem to fit into the seasons, although the seasonal dishes are one of the important reasons that Japanese food was registered under UNESCO World Heritage.
Those are deep sea fish such as Largehead hairtail, Japanese bluefish, Pollack and Splendid alfonsino.
Deep sea fish live at least 200 m below the surface of the ocean. For example, Splendid alfonsino lives at a depth of between 100 to 800 m deep, so it would generally be thought of as in-season in the winter when it has the highest fat content. However, except just before and after spawning season, the flavor of the Splendid alfonsino doesn’t change much throughout the year. Therefore, even high-end sushi restaurants always keep it in the topping case and it’s a popular choice.
Therefore, Splendid alfonsino is never actually “in-season”.
Since very little light reaches the deep sea, the water temperature remains more or less constant. In other words, there aren’t really seasonal (temperature) changes. The concept of season may not exist there.
Even so, you can think of it as especially delicious in the winter between December and February, when it has a higher fat content. Otherwise you might start to think of it as a fish that is “in-season” all year round, like salmon, and that just doesn’t feel quite as splendid.
In the United States, Sea Bream is often called a Red Snapper. However, strictly speaking, this is not correct.
Biologically, Snapper is a generic term for all species in the snapper family (Lutjanidae). Over 100 different species of snapper inhabit tropical coastal waters. Red snapper is mainly fished in the Gulf of Mexico.
So, what is the fish that Japanese sushi restaurants call “tai”?
They say there are over 300 different species of fish with “tai” in the name, making up 10% of Japan’s fish. When we say “tai” in Japanese, we are referring to “madai” or red sea bream. Red sea-bream is categorized in the “madai” family (Sparidae).
Incidentally, relatives of the sea bream often served at sushi restaurants include red sea bream (madai), crimson sea bream (chidai) and yellowback sea bream (kidai). While “kinmedai” (Splendid alfonsino) and “amadai” (horsehead tilefish) have the name “tai/dai” in them, they are not part of the same family as “tai”. Splendid alfonsino is a type of deep-sea fish.
Red sea bream and red snapper look similar, but when served as sushi, their texture and flavors are entirely different. So if you come to Japan, please try and eat natural madai. There is no “zatsumi” (overpowering bitterness) and it has a slight sweetness to it. This is the taste of tai, known as the king of the white fish. Just for your own reference.
The first item recommended to taste is white-flesh fish. Because of its subtle flavor, it doesn’t influence the following topping. Serving it for the very first piece of sushi is a standard move. However, absolute umami in the lightness can be taken as the details Japanese love and no other sushi toppings can offer.
Shiromi refers to white-colored fish meat. The fat content in Shiromi is generally low at about 1.2% in flounder and 4.7% in sea bream. Almost all white fish have a subtle and elegant taste. Furthermore, the rigor mortis takes over slowly and lasts for a long time, so it maintains the crunchy texture longer. Unlike Akami, the Shiromi fish don’t really migrate. You can call yourself a sushi expert if you’re able to recognize which fish it is just by looking at the cut.
Contrary to appearance, Salmon is classified as Shiromi. The salmon is originally grey, and the pink color comes from the pigments of the shrimp and crab on which it preys. We also think that Buri and Shima aji meat looks more beige than white. To be more specific, these are classified as Iromono, but there are relatively few chefs who actually know this term so we will refer to them as Shiromi. Once you’re able to speak knowledgeably on Shiromi, you’ll be a true Sushi Foodie.
What you should keep in mind is that most Shiromi fish used at sushi restaurants is sold as live fish. The broker implements Ikejime according to the instructions of the purchasing shop and then it is delivered. Basically, the chef calculates backward from the time he will make the sushi, aiming to maximize the umami. Furthermore, the price is at least 50% higher, considering the cost to transport from the fishing port to Toyosu Market, etc. This is one of the reasons Shiromi is so expensive at sushi restaurants.
Of course, only white fish that can be used for nigiri sushi is listed. Many varieties of Fugu exist, but with the exception of Torafugu (Japanese puffer fish), they are mainly used in conveyor belt sushi.
*Japanese terms will be italicized on sushi ingredients page. Parentheses after the English name indicate the scientific name.