Maguro and the Flatfish

How the flat fish gets around

Japanese Favorite Seafish Maguro 

Despite massive changes in diet and availability of non-traditional foodstuffs in the latter parts of the 20th century and to the present, Japan’s insatiable appetite for fish is hardly dwindling, even as the stocks of maguro bluefin tuna, tara cod and unagi eel teeter perilously on the edge of extinction.

tuna maguroTuna maguro Toro
Maguro bluefin tuna 'Kaitai' dismantling 

Top of the wishlist on every Japanese seafood menu is the imperious maguro bluefin tuna. Interviewed recently by the Japan Times’ JJ O’Donnahue in research for a recent article, I suggested: “The Japanese have been eating maguro bluefin tuna since the Jomon period, that's to say, for more than 2300 thousand years. It was described in the Kojiki 500s to 700s AD and Manyoshu 759 AD, Japan's earliest historical records, as shibi - the 'dead eye fish' - and has long enjoyed status as one of the tastiest ocean fishes available.

Maguru Toro Otoro Tuna


Since the 1960s, toro the fatty part of the tuna's belly has been at the pinnacle of the majority of sushi master's bill of fare. Bluefin has the image of being a luxury, but an affordable one. In its raw form as sushi or sashimi it is considered      simply  indispensable.

Mizai 1-3Thus it's a tough ask, trying to get the Japanese to reduce the consumption of bluefin let alone stop eating it altogether. You might as well ask the Italians to give up pasta, or the French cheese. Any celebration, be it birth, wedding, funeral rite, birthday party, or Year End celebration will likely involve bluefin tuna. If it doesn't, the inherent suggestion is that the organizers are too poor or too cheap to do a proper job. Such is its status”.


Maguro is usually graded into there types: akami, the reddest flesh and cheapest cut, chutoro the paler ‘middle grade’ and otoro the finest and fattiest variety. Oma maguro, caught by single line fishing off the northernmost point of Aomori Prefecture is generally considered the finest, though they are taken in deep sea waters off Miyagi, Tokyo, Shizuoka, Mie, Kochi, Miyazaki, Nagasaki, Tottori, Toyama and Hokkaido. Varieties include the kuromaguro black maguro, mebachi big eye, binnaga longtail, and kihada yellowfin. The Tuna auctions at Tsukiji Shijo Market in Tokyo are world famous. To date the record paid for a single fish stands at US$1.8 million.

The Differences Of Flatfish


hokke fish seafishAt the other end of the fish status scale, the hokke atka mackerel became popular during WWII as a cheap source of protein. This grey fish with light brown stripe, caught off Hokkaido and Northern Honshu, winter to spring, has a high fat content. It is best grilled, especially with a teriyaki sauce, deep-fried, or served simmered as nimono. Hokke is also made into fish paste and, in an act strikes me as being somewhat cannibalistic, as bait for tropical fish.


Hirame flounder or flatfish with eyes usually on the left of its head and karei flounder or flatfish with eyes usually on the right are easily confused. Hirame is best from autumn to winter, with kanbirame coldest season hirame considered the very finest. Its light white meat is expensive.

Hirame flatfish fishGenerally, flounder is used in nimono, sashimi, mushimono steamed dishes, furai and itamemono stir-fried dishes. In both Kochi and Oita Prefecture it’s called oya-nirami, ‘the fish that gave its parents a dirty look’ and was thus cursed to have its eyes on the same side of its body. I like hirame, and think it gets an unfair rap in some quarters, not least in the English language where it is also sometimes termed the ‘bastard halibut’..!


Of the 11 Japanese species, the magarei taken on the Hokkaido and Japan Sea coast is the most common karei. Another is the makogarei, caught from southern Hokkaido to southern Japan. When caught in the Beppu Bay off Oita Prefecture, this fleshy, especially tasty variety is called the shiroshita-garei ‘the flounder from beneath the castle’, as it is rumored to have once fed in the fresh waters beneath the Kinoshita fiefdom castle.

As the eye-placing distinction is unreliable, the best way to tell a karei from a hirame is to look for a smaller mouth. The smaller the fish body, the better the taste. It is often served as karaage dusted in flour and deep-fried, simmered as nitsuke, shioyaki salt-grilled, and also as sashimi if the fish is fresh enough.

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