Japan's Sea Fish Menu: Buri, Tai Sea Bream and Saba Mackerel

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Buri no Suimono: yellowtail
Buri no Suimono: Yellowtail in a clear soup

Buri the yellowtail or amberjack weighs up to 15kg and can exceed 100cm in length. This versatile sea fish is especially good as sashimi, grilled, or served as teriyaki brushed with mirin, shoyu and sugar, then grilled. Best in autumn and winter, especially when simmered with giant radish in the fabulous dish known as buri daikon, an izakaya staple. It is eaten at New Year in western Japan, as sashimi and added to ozoni the celebratory soup containing mochi. Toyama prefecture is especially fond of buri daikon.

The amberjack actually has around a different dozen Japanese names, depending on which part of the country you are in, and the size of the specimen in question. From 60cm to 100cm it is called warasa in East Japan, mejiro in West Japan, and gando up in Hokuriku. 40 to 60cm fish are inada, hamachi or mejiro, and fukuragi respectively in the same areas. The smallest fish are wakashi in East Japan, tsubasu in West Japan and kozukura in Hokuriku. If this seems baffling don’t worry, it confuses the Japanese too!

tai sea breamThere are over 100 varieties world wide of tai sea bream or snapper, long regarded as Japan’s finest, most auspicious sea fish. Its high rank in the fish stakes is reinforced by the play on words of ‘o-medetai’ meaning, loosely, the ‘wish-to-congratulate fish’ and is present, symbolically or actually, at all major celebrations, especially wedding ceremonies.

Madai is considered the best type of sea bream. Peach-red in colour, plentiful in the Sea of Japan and Inland Sea, especially in Nagasaki, Fukuoka and Ehime Prefectures, it is scarce on the Pacific side. Madai reaches up to 1m in length. It is best in early spring, and is used in sashimi and yakimono grilled dishes and also in clear soup. Kurodai black porgy, chidai crimson sea bream, itoyoridai golden thread and amadai tilefish are all popular and tasty variants. The spectacular-looking matodai John Dory is found in central and southern seas of Japan, and is easily recognised by the big black spot on its side, hence its Japanese name ‘target’ – the ‘mato’ is the target in traditional longbow archery. Best in winter, it is good as teriyaki and misozuke pickled in miso.

rzp-guji0231_rSaba the Pacific mackerel is a beautiful, mother-of-pearl hued sea fish. Along its back is a slivery black stripe, which turns pale blue to silver along the side of the body, the changes again to a delicate pink underbelly. Varieties include the masaba, gomasaba spotted mackerel, and the popular kansaba, caught in the waters between Oita in Kyushu, and Ehime in Shikoku.

Pacific mackerel is the key ingredient in Osaka’s battera-zushi, Kyoto’s purposely ‘ripe’ ki-zushi also called shimesaba, and in Kochi’s saba-no-sugata-zushi, where the fish retains its original, multi-hued shape. Found throughout Japan, and best in autumn, saba is also used in misoni, fish simmered in miso stock, and as the simple but delicious salt-fried shioyaki.

John F. Ashburne

John F. Ashburne

Editor-in-Chief Foodies Go Local