The favored dish at any major Japanese celebration, the tai's popularity stems from a combination of the fabulous taste of its firm, white flesh and wordplay association: medetai in Japanese means to 'celebrate', and is found in common form as omedetou gozaimasu 'congratulations'.
Traditionally, every Japanese person's introduction to food involves tai, at the kuizome ceremony where a baby is given its first morsel of solid food 100 days after birth. It's a nice way to enter the world of eating.
It is often called sakana no osama the King of Fish. The most highly regarded is the madai, literally the 'genuine tai', but other common varieties are amadai tilefish, kurodai black porgy, kidai yellowback sea bream, chidai crimson sea bream, itoyoridai golden thread, ishidai striped beakfish, ibodai butterfish and the wonderfully-named kinmedai splendid alfonsino.
The best madai generally come from Nagasaki, Fukuoka, Ehime and Akashi in Hyogo Prefecture. Kinmedai is famed in Shizuoka and Kochi, itoyoridai in the Seto Naikai inland sea, and amadai in Yamaguchi and Nagasaki prefectures.
Like many Japanese sea creatures, their names change according to locality. Madai is sometimes called hondai or sakuradai; amadai is okitsudai, kuzuna, ama or guji; kurodai is kaizu or chinu; kidai is kodai, banjiro, or benkodai; itoyoridai is terenko, bocha or tohiki; and kinmedai is akagi, akagigi, or kintaroudai.
Tai is highly popular served as sashimi, and also as sugatayaki, aka shioyaki, where the fish is salted and grilled so that it retains its shape. Tai no ara fish heads make great shirumono soups. It is generally regarded as too fine and pricey a fish to be dried in the sun as himono except in Shizuoka where it is served thus. Still pricey.
In the Kinki district of West Japan, at New Year they serve sea bream in a dish known as niramidai. 'Niramu' means to stare at something, in Japanese. From January 1st to 3rd, guests at New Year celebrations are only allowed to stare at the fish. From the 4th, those born in that zodiacal year get first dibs, followed by the oldest people in the household.
A personal favorite is taimeshi sea bream rice, in which a whole tai is cooked with rice in a clay pot, with dashi stock, and perhaps some kinome prickly ash leaves. Many contemporary cookbooks suggest you shouldn't cook the whole fish in the rice because it is murder to extract the bones. A fair point, perhaps, but where's the fun in taimeshi without the characteristic shape of the fish when you lift the lid from the pot? And when you do, oh, what a heavenly smell...
Talking of the heavens, Ebisu, the rosy-cheeked smiling deity in the Shichifukujin 'Seven Lucky Gods', is usually depicted clutching a huge sea bream under his arm, symbolizing prosperity and good luck. He's the only Japan-born God in that boat full of itinerant folk gods, and it comes as no surprise he's clutching the nation's favorite fish.
Ebisu's shiny complexion may be from eating all that sea bream. The fish's red hue is a result of it containing astaxanthin, a keto-caretonoid and powerful antioxidant that is reported to destroy cancer-causing free radicals, and is good for the skin and eye health. Tai also contains high levels of DHA and IPA.
When to eat
At New Years celebrations, weddings, births, and when in season from January until hanami cherry blossom-viewing season. There's a commonly held opinion that tai loses its flavor after the female fish have spawned in March or April, but in reality you can be confident of eating it all year round.
Where to eat
All fine kappo-style restaurants and ryotei are likely to serve tai, given its position as a celebratory dish. Specialists include Kappo Higuchi in Nagasaki, Hanana in Kyoto's Arashiyama district, Taimeshirou in Nagoya, and Taiya in Akasaka, Tokyo.
Tai and the Japanese citruses kabosu, sudachi and yuzu are a match made in heaven. Use them in a ponzu-style dipping sauce, or just simply squeezed on top of the freshly cooked fish.