Substitute fish is the fish we eat instead of the fish that has been eaten since back in the day. For being also called “fake fish” or “alternative fish”, it is more reasonable to get, but features a similar taste and a texture of the original one. In Japan, the fish that had not been distributed nor consumed domestically in the past, like foreign fish and deep-sea fish, was used as substitute fish.
Gastoro is widely distributed throughout the temperate and subarctic regions of the Southern Hemisphere, but is not known to be found in the Northern Hemisphere. It is found in the open ocean around Australia and New Zealand, at depths of about 200 meters. It has the English name “Butterfly Tuna (Gasterochisma melampus Richardson, 1845)” because of its large, butterfly-like abdominal fins.
It is mostly caught as bycatch in longline fisheries that catch southern bluefin tuna. This is due to the overlap in habitat with southern bluefin tuna.
It is often thought to taste similar to tuna, a popular sashimi fish, perhaps due to the inclusion of maguro and tuna names in its name, such as “Uroko maguro” and “Butterfly tuna,” but it actually does not resemble tuna very much.
It has a refreshing flavor more like swordfish tuna. The best way to eat it raw is marinated with soy sauce, which takes about 15 minutes for the whole saku (fillet).
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.
Among the many sushi toppings, Pacific bluefin tuna, and actually the Madai (Red sea bream) as well, are toppings that are difficult for an amateur to tell whether it is farmed or wild. However, there is no need to worry about that when it comes to Tako (Octopus). There are no octopus farms to be found in the world, so it is a 100% wild topping.
In Japan, domestic production isn’t enough to satisfy the appetite of Japanese who like Tako, so the majority relies on imports. Imports from Africa account for 80% and the remainder is imported from China, Southeast Asia, Mexico, Spain and other places in the world.
Most of the African imports are produced by nations on the northwestern coast, with the highest number coming from Mauritania. Until 2003 the highest volume came from Morocco for many years. However, due to continued mass catches to sell to Japan, Tako numbers dropped drastically, leading to the Moroccan government panicking and outlawing fishing. For some reason, Japanese people have grown to love Tako and now consume nearly half of the Tako caught throughout the world.
There are over 200 types of Tako in the world with approximately 60 types inhabiting the seas near Japan. Among these, the Japanese mainly only eat Madako, Mizudako and Iidako. Even among these, Madako makes up at least 80% of consumption.
Most of the Tako found at conveyor belt sushi is African Madako (Madako from Africa). African produced Tako is boiled on-site before being imported frozen. The cost is 20 cents or less per topping.
Amateurs can’t tell the difference between domestic Tako or African imports. However, there is one aspect that even an amateur can use to distinguish between the two. There is one condition for this to work, and that is that at least one of the suckers is in-tact. The suckers are scraped off for most toppings, but in cases where they are sliced by the restaurant, there are often suckers remaining. If the sucker is pure white, it is almost definitely from Africa. Meanwhile, domestic Tako suckers maintain a faint red color in the suckers, even when boiled. The reason the suckers turn white seems to be an effect of the food preservatives added during processing, but this has not been confirmed.
There happens to be a substitute for Madako as well.
One of these is the Iwadako from Vietnam, which grows as large as the height of an adult human. It is imported in frozen slices that can be used as raw Tako as soon as it thaws. The cost of this topping is 20 cents or less per piece. This ends up disguised as Hokkaido Tako.
There are also domestic substitutes. Yanagidako (Chestnut octopus) is mainly caught in the Pacific Ocean, from Chiba prefecture northward. The flavor is lighter than Madako, but it is also softer than Madako, so some people actually consider it to be better than Madako. If it is boiled and made into sushi, an amateur can’t distinguish between it and Madako. The legs are thin so they just need to be cut at an extreme angle in order to make the topping appear bigger. The cost of this topping is 15 cents or less per piece. It is also used as Mizudako because it is watery when eaten raw.
As you can see, there are also many substitute toppings for Madako.
Toro is an absolute at sushi restaurants and it’s only natural to aspire to such a position. That’s why there are so many sushi dish names that start with “Toro”. The most laissez-faire of these is Toro salmon. In this case the definition of Toro is ignored in an attempt to promote sales. Just as bad is Toro katsuo (pronounced “Toro-gatsuo” in Japanese).
Katsuo is born in the warm southern seas. When it reaches about two years old it migrates north in pursuit of Iwashi and other small fish. There are two routes taken by the Katsuo that come to the seas around Japan. One of the routes rides the Kuroshio Current (a warm current) from around the Philippines, passing by Taiwan and the Ryukyus Islands, arriving in southern Kyushu. From there the Katsuo rarely heads toward the Sea of Japan and instead the majority moves northward on the Pacific Ocean side. The Katsuo migration schedule may shift depending on the temperature of the seawater and how the schools of Iwashi and Aji (which the Katsuo feeds on) are migrating that year. The first group appears around Ishigaki Island about January, then in the seas off the shores of Kyushu and Shikoku between February and March. It then moves to the seas off of the Izu and Boso peninsulas between April and June. It reaches the open seas off the southern coast of Sanriku and Hokkaido between July and September.
Another route follows the Ogasawara ocean current from below the equator in the seas off the shore of Papua New Guinea and the seas around Micronesia to the Ogasawara Islands, along the Seven Islands of Izu and approaching the open seas off the Boso Peninsula. The route then goes northward to join with the routes mentioned above.
It’s the Modori-gatsuo that begins reverse migration toward the south at the beginning of autumn when the water temperatures start to drop. Katsuo has a strong appetite before returning south in preparation for the long trip. Unlike the light-flavored Hatsu-gatsuo, the Modori-gatsuo has plenty of fat and its body fattens up quite a bit. The main fishing locations for Modori-gatsuo are in the northern Pacific, such as the waters off the shore of Sanriku. This is the season when it is truly worthy of the name Toro katsuo when served raw, and nothing else should be called by the same name.
Japan leads the world in shrimp consumption by far. Most of the shrimp is imported, but it is a little known fact that shrimp is called “Meki” among importers and sushi restaurants in Japan. It is said to be a remnant from a time when much of the imported shrimp came from Mexico (pronounced “Mekishiko” in Japanese).
Shrimp can be caught within 45 degrees north or south of the equator. The caught shrimp is quick-frozen on site and then sent to Japan. Mexico was early in advanced refrigeration technology so when it became impossible to catch shrimp in the seas around Japan in the 1970s, a large volume of shrimp was already being imported from Mexico. It was around that time that importers shortened the phrase “Shrimp imported from Mexico” to “Meki”.
After that the major source of shrimp imports switched to Taiwan, which started shrimp aquaculture, and it is now also imported from Thailand, Indonesia and China. The name “Meki” stuck in the industry, despite the fact that shrimp is now mainly imported from other places in Asia.
Imported shrimp is categorized by body color tones, either brown, pink or white. The color is combined with the place of origin or country name and that is what each type of fish is called at the distribution stage. For example, they may be called Mexico brown or Guiana pink.
Well-known brown-toned shrimp include Ushi ebi (Black tiger shrimp) and Mexico brown (Yellowleg shrimp). Pink-toned types include Guiana pink (Pink spotted shrimp) and Nigeria pink ebi (Southern pink shrimp). White-toned shrimp include Taisho ebi (Fleshly prawn), Banana ebi (Banana Prawn) , Eedeavour ebi (Eedeavour prawn) and Vannamei ebi (Whiteleg shrimp). There are many sushi restaurants that use pink and brown-toned sushi that turn into a nice red color when boiled. While the meat of white-toned shrimp is soft, it turns a whitish color when boiled and doesn’t look very appetizing. However, due to the splendid, large tail, it is perfect for tempura or fried prawns.
Next, We will touch on the characteristics of shrimp that is typically imported to Japan. All these types are actually related to the Kuruma prawn, which is representative of premium shrimp and a familiar ingredient of sushi. In other words, these imports are alternatives to make up for the shrimp consumption in Japan that can’t be covered by the Kuruma prawn. Normally the head is removed, it is frozen, packed in large lots, and then embarks on the distribution channel in Japan.
It is found from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, the Malay Archipelago and Australia. The species is of considerable commercial importance in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and Korean Bight, where it is trawled. It is sold in Korea, China, Japan and Hong Kong. This is a large shrimp that reaches up to 25 cm in body length. The appearance is similar to the Kuruma ebi, but without any special pattern. The edge of the abdomen is a dark brown color. There are 28 known species related to the Kuruma ebi. In the Toyosu market, those with a striped pattern are Kuruma ebi, and those without are Taisho ebi. In Japanese it’s been dubbed “Korai ebi” is due to the fact that it is often caught in the waters off the west coast of the Korean peninsula. The soft meat has a sweetness that makes this shrimp delicious. The number of wild Taisho ebi has decreased drastically in recent years. The coloring is lighter than Kuruma prawn and Black tiger shrimp, but darker than other white-toned shrimp. This type has a long history compared to other imported frozen shrimp and such high volumes were imported from China that it was called Chinese Taisho. It accounted for the majority of the market share until farmed Black tiger shrimp started to appear on the market.
Banana ebi (Banana Prawn /Penaeus merguiensis)
It found around the northern coast of Australia from the New South Wales-Queensland border to Shark Bay in Western Australia, it is mainly caught by trawlers between Exemouth Gulf, Western Australia and Brisbane, with the bulk of the catch coming from the Gulf of Carpentaria. It weighs between 18 to 30 g per shrimp and is colored like a banana. The meat is soft and has a sweetness. Sometimes it is also sold as Taisho ebi. The body is thinner and slenderer than the Black tiger shrimp. It is available year round with peak supply in April.
Mexico brown (Yellowleg shrimp, Brown shrimp /Farfantepenaeus californiensis)
Australia tiger（Brown tiger prawn /Penaeus esculentus）
This is a reddish-brown colored shrimp with a striped pattern from Australia. It is often imported with the head intact. The meat has a sweetness and the soft coloring is also nice. It is used as an alternat to Kuruma prawn. Most are caught in the wild, especially in Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria.
Australia ebi（Endeavour prawn/Metapenaeus endeavouri）
It is available wild-caught, they are bottom-dwelling marine prawns, found from southern New South Wales, around the northern coast of Australia to Shark Bay, Western Australia. It is commonly 22-30g and 7-14cm in body length. It mainly caught from March to November.
It occurs at depths from 3 to 700 m, common at depths from 10 to 75 m, inhabits bottom mud or sandy mud, and sandy patches among rocks in marine environment. Juveniles are found in estuarine environment. Also inhabits lagoons. It is often used for sushi because of the soft meat, good flavor and nice coloring. This is one of the highest grades of imported shrimp.
Mexico ebi (Northern brown shrimp, Brown shrimp /Farfantepenaeus aztecus)
Maximum standard length: 22 cm. It lives in bottom mud or peat, often with sand, clay or broken shells. Adults inhabit in marine environment. Juveniles inhabit in estuarine and marine environment. There are 13 types of brown-toned Kuruma prawn in the world and the names get confusing.
King ebi (Eastern king prawn /Penaeus plebejus)
Adults are found in marine environment while juveniles are found in estuarine environments. It is found over sandy bottoms at depths of 2-350 m or deeper.
Finally, the shrimp introduced in this section is consumed not only in Japan, but all over the world. Judging by the images on social media, takeout sushi and the frozen shrimp sold at Costco are made from one of the types of shrimp described here. If you’re going to learn about sushi, it’s important to learn the types of shrimp used in sushi.
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.
Caviar refers to salted sturgeon ovaries but in many European countries, caviar is also used as a generic term for fish roe. In its home of Russia, roe is generally called “ikura” and caviar specifically refers to black fish roe.
Caviar is one of the world’s three major delicacies and can command different prices depending on the type of sturgeon (egg size). It is ranked in the order: Beluga, Oscietra and Sevruga, all of which come from the Caspian Sea. Beluga from the Caspian Sea is designated as an endangered species and international trade is prohibited by the Washington Convention. Its population is very small and it does not lay eggs until 20 years into its lifespan, so the resource has yet to recover. This has brought the market price of Beluga up to around USD $400 for just 50 g.
What is the substitute for caviar?
Lumpfish roe is sold as a substitute for caviar. The size of each egg is about 2 mm in diameter and it is colored with squid ink. This gives it a taste and appearance similar to caviar. The market price is an astonishing USD $5 per 50 g.
The main ingredients of Lumpfish caviar are as follows:
What is artificial caviar?
Artificial caviar is significantly cheaper than genuine caviar. It’s low in fats, lower in calories and healthier than the real thing. It is already a big hit in the U.S. The size of the eggs is a little larger than authentic caviar and the skin is thicker but most people would tell you the texture and taste is much the same. There has also been a decrease in sturgeon, and there is no sign that its price will fall in the future. The challenge is meeting the global demand through a combination of farmed caviar which has become a more stable supply in recent years, with the ever-dwindling wild caviar. The market price is reasonable at around USD $10 for 50 g.
There is a way to tell the difference between real caviar and fake caviar.
First, place the caviar on a cracker. Fake caviar (made of Lumpfish roe) has added color, and this color will bleed onto the cracker within about 30 minutes. However, the color will not transfer to the cracker from real caviar.
The main raw ingredients of artificial caviar are as follows:
Sea urchin extract
Finally, seafood with a high price, unfortunately, results in substitutes, counterfeits, and artificial products. Masquerading a fake as the real thing can result in a large profit. I will tell you that it is difficult to trick a middleman who serves professional sushi chefs or restaurants. Therefore anyone in Japan who uses seafood like this, does it knowingly, which makes the crime even worse.
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.
Natural fish are part of the food chain and have concentrations of harmful substances. Since 2000 the amount of mercury found in fish has become an issue. The American Natural Resources Defense Council has said tuna is a fish that should be avoided if pregnant or planning to get pregnant. A more recent problem is the large amounts of micro plastics found in fish meat. This shocking phenomenon will likely be reported by research organizations at some point in time. If it does reach that extreme, then it will be better to avoid the danger of eating fish.
Before continuing, please read the exclusive articles in major media and research papers.
The red tide (algal bloom) frequently occurs off the coast of Chile and it is resulting a large amount of salmon deaths. In 2015 27 million salmon died in a mass event, of which 25,000 tons were powdered and then fed to the healthy salmon (according to the UK’s Guardian reports).
Chilean fish farmers are using large quantities of antibiotics to control fish diseases. They use 500-700 times more antibiotics than Norway does. 80% of antibiotics imported into Chile are intended for the fish farming industry. Faced with the risk of bacteria resistant to antibiotics emerging, as highlighted by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Chilean National Fish Service is calling for a reduction in the use of antibiotics. (Extract from Le Monde diplomatique Japanese edition）
The bright color of salmon is something that you would never see a long time ago, but is now commonplace. It is likely due to the Canthaxanthin pigment mixed into their feed. Salmon is in fact a white fish. The salmon that is caught in Japan is called “Shirozake” or white salmon and its flesh is not a pink before it goes out to sea. Once it is out at sea, it swims around consuming small plankton and crustaceans such as shrimp and krill. Its body then takes on a pink color due to the intake of natural coloring of Astaxanthin. This Astaxanthin has antioxidant effects and it is noted for playing a part in relieving fatigue and preventing aging. However, the synthetic pigmentation that creates the salmon pink does not provide the same health benefits.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave approval for genetically modified salmon on November 19th, 2015. This genetically modified salmon is called “AquAdvantage salmon.” It grows faster than regular salmon and its body length is almost double. There are groups opposing the sale of this salmon, including US citizen group Center for Food Safety, the Japanese Seikatsu Club, and the European parliament. There are still many unknowns regarding the safety of this type of fish for human consumption, and a number of issues are still being debated. The discussion has been featured in “Nature” magazine.
Endosulfan is a type of organochlorine compound, like Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane, Dicofol, Heptachlor, Chlordane, Mirex, Pentachlorophenol, and is known to be extremely toxic, but the EU approved Endosulfan for use as feed in Norway’s salmon farming industry in 2013.
Researchers analyzed the risk-benefit ratio based on levels of contaminants like dioxins, PCBs and chlorinated pesticides versus omega-3 fatty acid levels. While farmed salmon is higher in omega-3s, it is also significantly higher in these toxins (about 10 times) which can produce birth defects, lower IQ, and cause cancer. They determined the following based on origin of the salmon: “consumers should not eat farmed fish from Scotland, Norway and eastern Canada more than three times a year; farmed fish from Maine, western Canada and Washington state no more than three to six times a year; and farmed fish from Chile no more than about six times a year. Wild chum salmon can be consumed safely as often as once a week, pink salmon, Sockeye and Coho about twice a month and Chinook just under once a month.” (Extract from The Journal of Nutrition)
There is a saying, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. It is unlikely that big media outlet and research organizations would join forces to circulate incorrect information. Furthermore, this is not a problem that only affects certain countries like Chile or Norway. It should be considered as a problem for the entire farmed salmon industry.
On the other side of the debate, there are articles such as the following. Norway’s NIFES (National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research) sampled 13,180 farmed fish (of which 90% were salmon) and monitored them for medicines, substances that are prohibited by law, and other pollutants, publishing their report on August 17th 2015. In their latest report, it concluded that Norwegian farmed fish were safe and that illegal and undesirable substances were not observed to exceed standards. Further, it seems that they have confirmed decrease in most of the pollutants analyzed in the investigation.
But the fact is that, according to these articles, while the chemicals did not exceed standard values, they were certainly found to be present in farmed salmon. The other extreme would be to say that eating natural un-farmed salmon will not expose you to the potential risks from these types of chemicals.
However, that’s not really practical. The global production of farmed salmon is 2.5 million tons a year, approximately three times the 800,000 tons of naturally fished salmon. No matter what way you slice it, the option of farmed salmon isn’t going away anytime soon.
Seafood product buyers tend to believe that the products they are purchasing are as described by the sellers. But, that isn’t always the case. Seafood products are sometimes intentionally labeled incorrectly for profit.
This is seafood fraud. Fraudulent actions like this threaten the safety of the food. From the FDA’s “Report on Seafood Fraud”
70% of seafood consumed in the US is eaten at restaurants. The products served at restaurants are generally lower quality than those sold in retail outlets and the sushi is especially appalling. Unless visiting a top-class sushi restaurant (where the prices are, of course, high), you can usually expect to be served the worst of the worst.
There isn’t much a consumer can do about this, but at the very least you can educate yourself on types of fish that are often substituted. If you were to order White Tuna or Red Snapper, you would very likely be served something else. Any shrimp ordered was probably farmed.
There are no laws regulating “Fresh” or “Organic” labels so don’t be fooled by these. In the same way, be suspicious when you see word combinations like “Great Sushi” or “Great Sashimi.” There is no such thing as “Great” in this sense. By Larry Olmsted, a print columnist for two of America’s three national newspapers, Investor’s Business Daily and USAToday
The natural salmon roe season is the autumn. Does this mean that most of the roe eaten during the off-season is artificial Salmon roe. Not necessarily. As stated in his biography, even at the famous sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, frozen roe is thawed as necessary.
Long ago this was an extremely expensive topping that ordinary people couldn’t afford, so artificial roe was used. There was a time when this was the case. But nowadays salmon roe is regularly imported from overseas and can be obtained cheaper, eliminating the need to use artificial roe instead.
However, we cannot overlook the commercial law for passing off artificial roe as natural roe. In Japan, the non-perishable properties of artificial salmon roe made from chemical substances (mainly sodium alginate) is utilized and used mainly in hospitals, but not sold to the general public. I’ll also tell you that it is very rare to find a sushi restaurant that serves artificial roe. Cheap roe is generally made from eggs of trout, other related species, or imported from Canada and other countries.
Unfortunately I’m not familiar with the state of things outside of Japan, but I can tell you how to tell the difference. All it takes is hot water and a moment of observation. Artificial salmon roe will show no changes in hot water, but natural roe will start to turn white on the surface. This is due to the protein reacting and changing with the heat. That said, this is not an experience you can just set up at the sushi restaurant.
As an aside…
What are the fish eggs on sushi called in Japan?
There are eight types of fish eggs served at Japanese sushi restaurants. However, not all of them are used for Nigiri sushi. Some are served as side dishes. Uni is sometimes translated as sea urchin’s roe, but it is actually the sea urchin’s genitals (testes and ovaries). Most people also don’t know that Tobiko and Tarako are not served at 99% of Edo-style restaurants. In other words, these toppings are only served at kaiten-sushi (conveyor belt) restaurants. The one type of roe topping that can probably be found at all sushi restaurants is Ikura. Even more types of fish eggs, such as Masago, Paddlefish roe and Hackleback roe are used in sushi overseas, but Japan remains more conservative. Of course, it’s only natural that fish substitutes are not well-received in the place where sushi was born.
Types of fish roe
What is Ikura? － It is Salmon roe.
What is Kazunoko? － It is Herring eggs.
What is Sujiko? － It is Salmon roe that is still within its egg membrane.
What is Tobiko? － It is Flying fish roe.
What is Tarako? － It is Walleye pollock roe.
What is Caviar? － It is Sturgeon roe.
What is Karasumi? － It is Dried mullet roe.
What is komochi konbu? － It is Herring spawn on kelp.
It is true that in an age when aquatic resources are being depleted, there is a worldwide demand for a substitute for luxurious fish. However, although it’s not easy to tell fish apart once it’s sliced, that doesn’t mean that restaurants should not be held to certain standards. Here we present a number of severe cases.
First of all, Opah belly meat with some fat is used for the tuna in Negi-toro (tuna minced with Welsh onion leaves). Opah is widely distributed in warm seas and it’s known to be inexpensive with a smooth taste. The price is less than 1/100 of the Pacific bluefin tuna and if possible Negi-toro made from Opah should be avoided.
Next let’s discuss Japanese conger, an essential Edo-style sushi topping. A substitute for Japanese conger is the Common snake eel, which is a type of sea snake from Peru. The taste is pretty good, but the skin is rubbery and it doesn’t stick to the Shari (vinegar rice) so it’s instantly apparent that it’s a substitute fish. If you find Japanese conger at kaiten-zushi for JPY 100 per plate, you might want to question the source.
A premium sushi topping is the Mirugai clam (also called Hon-miru). This shellfish is characterized by its unique texture and taste. Instead the Japanese geoduck (Shiro-miru) is used, which sells for half the market price. However, the taste of the two is so similar that even Sushi Tsu has mistaken them, which is great news for dishonest dealers.
In April 2015 the Food Labeling Act was revised, leading to progressive reduction of fraudulent labels, but it is not a solution that eradicates dishonest dealers so consumers need to be educated and aware.
In some cases a two-piece sushi dish you can get for JPY 100 at Kaiten-zushi (Conver belt sushi) can cost up to 2,000 for half the volume at a fancy restaurant. Many Kaiten-zushi establishments are part of large chains so costs are kept low by buying in bulk.
Also, unlike the fancy restaurants, which procure the best seasonal catch from fishing grounds all over the country, Kaiten-zushi uses a combination of frozen and farmed fish as well as substituting some fish for certain toppings.
For example, Engawa is often thought to be from Japanese flounder, but Pacific halibut or Greenland halibut is used instead as a substitute.
While different from fancy sushi restaurants that serve various seasonal fish and edomaeshigoto, Kaiten-zushi has its own merits and offers sushi at a much lower price. It’s really up to the customer what they hope to get from their sushi experience.