Black scraper (Umazurahagi) is distributed in the Sea of Japan from Hokkaido to Kyushu, the Pacific Ocean, the Yellow Sea, and the East China Sea from the Korean Peninsula to the coast of China. It is a familiar fish caught throughout Japan. Umazurahagi are called nagahagi (naga means long) because they are longer than Filefish (Kawahagi).
They are abundant at depths of around 10m, slightly offshore from Filefish. When young, around 10 cm in length, they migrate in schools, but as adults, they are often found alone. Adults gather in coastal areas to spawn from around May to July and dive to deeper water around November.
What does Black scraper (Umazurahagi) sushi taste like?
Black scraper (Umazurahagi) has a blurry appearance and does not look tasty, but once peeled, it reveals a clear white flesh similar to that of pufferfish.
The price of Umazurahagi is completely different between those caught in large quantities by bottom trawling fishing and those caught by pole and line fishing. Therefore, Ikejime or live fish are used for sushi toppings.
The liver, with its rich flavor, can be raw or seared and used in nigiri sushi to make an exceptional dish. Although it is looked down upon compared to Filefish and pufferfish, it is relatively affordable and highly regarded as a topping, and is not a substitute for Filefish at all.
However, the quantity of fish received at the Toyosu market and other markets is not stable. From that point of view, few restaurants offer nigiri sushi.
Marbled rockfish (Kasago) can be found anywhere along the coast from southern Hokkaido to the East China Sea. It lives in the shadows of reefs and blocks from the coast to depths of about 60m to 200m. A voracious carnivorous fish, it preys on crustaceans such as small shrimps, polychaetes such as ragworm, and small fish such as gobies.
Body color varies from dark brown, reddish, to blackish, and there is a great deal of variation depending on the environment in which they live. Those that inhabit deeper water are said to be redder, while those that inhabit shallower water are said to be darker. Another characteristic of this species is the irregular white patches on its back side.
Along with Mebaru and Ainame, it is a representative of rockfish (It is a fish that does not migrate far and has a small habitat). It is about 30 cm long. Its scientific name is Sebastiscus marmoratus (Cuvier, 1829).
Some species of marbled rockfish have poison lines on their pectoral fins and dorsal fins, so care should be taken when cooking them. Also, since they have many spines all over their body, when grabbing a live fish, put your thumb in their mouth and grasp their lower jaw.
It is generally considered a winter fish, but the season is spring. It is most fatty from January to April, and the black ones that inhabit the seashore are said to be tastier than the reddish marbled rockfish that inhabit offshore waters. It can be caught in all regions of the Japanese archipelago, which stretches from north to south, a light white fish that is easy to remove from the bone, so it is delicious regardless of the season. The larger ones are often made into sashimi or sushi, while the smaller ones are often eaten as boiled fish.
What is Marbled rockfish (Kasago) sushi taste like?
Marbled rockfish (Kasago) is treated as a high-end fish in the Toyosu market, but the supply is not consistent. In addition, its large head and low yield make it rare for restaurants to serve nigiri sushi and sashimi.
The elegant flavor of nigiri sushi and sashimi is, to put it mildly, unsatisfying. The best way to eat nigiri is to broil the skin and let the aroma come out. This will dissolve the gelatinous material under the skin, and the sweetness and umami of the fat can be felt gradually. It is also good to eat it with citrus fruits such as sudachi and salt.
Rockfish (Mebaru) are distributed over a relatively wide area from southern Hokkaido to Kyushu, the Korean Peninsula, and elsewhere. They inhabit rocky reefs at depths of 50 to 150 meters. The length of the fish is 20-25 cm.
The fish is caught by pole-and-line and longline fishing starting around March, and becomes fat and oily by April when the water temperature begins to rise. Anglers are most likely to catch Kuro-mebaru. They are mainly eaten simmered or grilled.
However, the fish is poisonous in its dorsal fin, so it is important to be very careful when handling it. Because it is a very small amount of poison, it is a cause that is neglected, but there are times when serious symptoms appear.
What does Goldeye rockfish (Usumebaru) sushi taste like?
Sushi chefs use a species called Goldeye rockfish (Usumebaru), which is found in deeper waters offshore. The maximum length of the fish is 35 cm. The main production areas are Aomori and Yamagata prefectures.
Goldeye rockfish is a member of the scorpionfish family, but it is less fishy than scorpionfish and has a very light flavor with firm flesh. It has little fat and a light aftertaste, making it a good pairing with sushi rice. When served as nigiri sushi, it is also good to use Kobujime. Although the market availability is stable, it is traded at a high price.
Barfin flounder (Matsukawagarei) is distributed along the Pacific coast north of Ibaraki Prefecture and in the Sea of Japan north of Toyama Prefecture, the southern Sea of Okhotsk, and the Kurile Islands. It inhabits sandy muddy areas at depths of up to 200 m, feeding mainly on crustaceans and small fishes. The maximum length of the body is 80 cm.
It is similar in appearance to the closely related Spotted halibut, but the Barfin flounder has banded black spots on its fins, while the Spotted halibut has circular ones. The name ” Matsukawagarei ” is said to come from its scales, which are hard and resemble the epidermis of a pine tree. Barfin flounder is now very rare in the wild, and most of the fish caught are released juveniles. This is based on the habit of flounder species to remain in the waters where they are released. The main production areas are Hokkaido, Aomori, and Iwate prefectures, and the season is winter. The scientific name isVerasper moseri Jordan & Gilbert, 1898.
What does Barfin flounder (Matsukawagarei) sushi taste like?
Barfin flounder (Matsukawagarei) tastes better in larger sizes, and the males are tastier than the females. Its flesh is firm, and when fresh, it tastes better when thinly sliced. The umami increases after about two days of maturing, as is the case with other flounders.
Barfin flounder, along with spotted halibut, is a high-end fish, and if asked which is more delicious, barfin flounder or spotted halibut, most people would probably say spotted halibut. However, the reason may be that they are not familiar with Barfin flounder. As proof of this, you will almost never see it at high-end sushi restaurants in Tokyo, but it is not that uncommon at high-end restaurants in Sapporo.
Spotted knifejaw (Ishigakidai) is distributed along the Pacific coast south of Ibaraki Prefecture and along the Sea of Japan south of Yamaguchi Prefecture to the South China Sea. It inhabits mainly rocky reefs. The length of the body reaches 90 cm.
The ecology and habits are similar to those of Barred knifejaw (Ishidai), but young fish are generally brownish with numerous blackish-brown stone wall (stone wall is ishigaki in Japanese) patterns scattered throughout the body. As the fish grows, the pattern becomes lighter, and in male adults it disappears completely. The season is summer.
What does Spotted knifejaw (Ishigakidai) sushi taste like?
The meat of Spotted knifejaw (Ishigakidai) is firmer and tighter than that of Red seabream (Madai), and it is so chewy that it feels too hard to make sashimi if it has just died. Therefore, like puffer fish, usuzukuri (thinly sliced) is used for sashimi and sushi topping.
Spotted knifejaw has a more subtle scent of the sea than barred knifejaw. The color of chiai (dark red meat) is not a bright red, but rather a duller shade, but the meat is surprisingly fatty and delicious.
Nigiri sushi is also good with salt and kabosu. Its umami is thought to arise from eating sea urchins, shellfish and crustaceans. Both nigiri sushi and sashimi are rare in Tokyo, but common in Shikoku and Kyushu.
Silver croaker (Ishimochi or Shiroguchi) is distributed in the Tohoku region and southwards, the East China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the western Pacific Ocean. It is mainly found on sandy mud bottoms at depths of 20~140m. Its body color is shiny silvery white with somewhat indistinct black spots on the tops of its gill covers. The Japanese name Ishimochi (Ishimochi means having the stones) is derived from the presence of large calcareous otoliths within the skull bones. The length of the body is about 40 cm. The season is summer. Caught in large quantities in the East China Sea by bottom trawl fishing, it is mainly used as a raw material for high-grade fish paste. The scientific name is Pennahia argentata (Houttuyn,1782).
What does Silver croaker (Ishimochi) sushi taste like?
Silver croaker (Ishimochi) can be eaten raw if fresh, and it goes well with vinegared rice. Its clear white flesh has a firm texture, but it is somewhat watery, so it is best served as sujime or yubiki.
There are many delicious white fish, but in terms of individuality, Silver croaker may be the top level among sushi toppings. Conversely, I am once again impressed by the power of vinegared rice that catches the peculiarities of Silver croaker. In the Kanto region, it is a popular fish for salted grilled fish, and it takes on a completely different flavor when grilled.
Golden threadfin bream (Itoyoridai) is distributed in Chiba Prefecture and southward except Ryukyu Islands, Korean Peninsula, East China Sea, South China Sea, Philippines, and Northern Australia. It has a low, slender body shape, is generally reddish yellow with 6~8 longitudinal yellow stripes on the body, and the upper lobe of the tail fin is elongated in a thread-like shape. It lives on muddy bottoms at depths of 40~100m and are 40~50cm long. Its season is from fall to winter.
The yellow stripes on its body are beautiful and do not fade after being caught, so it is often used for celebrations and festivals. It can be found in the market all year round, but the catch is not so large that it is in short supply. It is more highly prized in the Kansai region than in the Kanto region, where it is treated as a luxury fish. It is not a member of the bream family and used to be called Golden threadfin (Itoyori) without bream.
A closely related species, yellowbelly threadfin bream, is very similar, but the Toyosu market does not distinguish between the two and distributes them under the name Itoyori. There is almost no difference in taste. If anything, Yellowbelly threadfin bream (Nemipterus bathybius Snyder, 1911) is a bit softer than Golden threadfin bream (Nemipterus virgatus (Houttuyn, 1782)). Itoyori surimi is used to make Kamaboko (fish cake). It is one of the most important species of commercial fisheries.
What does Golden threadfin bream (Itoyoridai) sushi taste like?
Golden threadfin bream (Itoyoridai) is used widely in French and Italian cuisine because it has a light, natural flavor and does not shrink when heated. However, it has high water content, so its flesh is a bit softer when made into sashimi.
Golden threadfin bream has umami not only in its meat but also in its skin, so immersed it in boiling water quickly to retain its umami flavor and give it a beautiful appearance.
And then Kobujime makes nigiri sushi with a mild and elegant flavor. The fat between the skin and the flesh contains umami, so it is sometimes seared to give it a savory aroma.
Red cornetfish (Akayagara) is distributed mainly in warm seas around the world, from the seas around Japan south of central Honshu to the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans. It inhabits depths shallower than 200 meters. They swim in small groups in rock and coral reefs’ upper layers. Adults are reddish brown, with each fin and belly side slightly paler and sticky without scales. The maximum length of the body is up to 2 m, one-third of which is the head, and the area from the tip of the mouth to the eye is long and tubular.
What does Red cornetfish (Akayagara) sushi taste like?
Only Red cornetfish (Fistularia petimba Lacepède, 1803) and Bluespotted cornetfish (Fistularia commersonii Rüppell, 1838) are edible in the waters around Japan. Red cornetfish is more frequently caught. Despite its odd appearance, Red cornetfish is known as a tasty fish and is in season in the summer when few fish are in season.
The taste is mild and light, the meat is firmer than many other white-fleshed fish. It does not become hard even after being heated and is delicious even when steamed. It is so refined and flavorful that it is served as sashimi at Ryotei (Japanese-style restaurants), and is naturally delicious as nigiri sushi. Considering the yield rate, it can be said to be a super-premium fish.
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.
They are called American red snapper or Northern red snapper in supermarkets. The scientific name is Lutjanus campechanus.
And there is another species of fish called the Red Snapper. The Australasian snapper or silver seabream (Japanese name is Goushu-madai) is a species of porgie found in the coastal waters of Australia, Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, and New Zealand. It is a close relative of the Japanese Tai and similar in shape, but the body color of this species is golden pink, with a lighter reddish tinge than Tai, and the blue spots are lighter in color and somewhat larger. It has softer flesh and less flavor than the Tai, but has a light, delicious taste. Its scientific name is Chrysophrys auratus.
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.
In American supermarkets, Porgy (Stenotomus chrysops) is sold, which has a beautiful cherry color and looks like Tai itself. However, the taste is different from that of Tai, being softer and lighter in flesh. Around New York and New Jersey, it is called Porgy, and in Massachusetts, it is called Scup. It is native to the Atlantic Ocean.
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.