Life on a predominantly mountainous island has had a huge effect on Japanese cuisine.
The rough terrain and the vastness of the surrounding sea forced the people of Japan to get creative with their food. The most abundant and easily available source of nutrients was, naturally, fish.
Today, Japanese cookbooks contain thousands of ways to prepare fish. There’s a sea of knowledge out there, and plenty to explore.
Before you jump headfirst into the tasty and diverse world of Japanese cuisine, take a moment to understand the basics of staple foods like rice and fish.
Common Types of Fish in Japanese Cuisine
Salmon – Sake (鮭)
If you come across a platter of sashimi, chances are that salmon are among the top delicacies on it. The bright orange flesh of this highly esteemed fish is very flavorful and healthy, so it’s one of the most commonly consumed fish in Japan.
Besides eating it raw, Japanese people also prepare salmon by cooking, grilling, roasting, and frying. Fillets are most commonly used.
Tuna – Maguro (鮪)
Tuna is a large fish on top of the food chain. The sea giant feeds on sardines and squid.
You can find 7 kinds of tuna in Japanese shops – but the most popular are Bluefin and Bigeye tuna. Known for its dominant flavor, tuna is prepared in many ways but it’s primarily served in sushi and on sashimi platters.
Saury – Sanma (秋刀魚)
Also known by the name mackerel pike, saury is a middle-sized fish that grows substantially in the fall. At its biggest, it reaches up to 40 cm and its fat content peaks. For that reason, the Japanese consider saury a fall specialty, when they eat it grilled whole.
Willow leaf – Shishamo (柳葉魚)
This fish, native to Hokkaido, is an anadromous species – it lives in saltwater, but like salmon and trout, it migrates from the ocean into freshwater to spawn. It gets its name from its elongated shape, which resembles the long, delicate leaves of a willow tree.
This is a smaller kind of fish that typically reaches about 15 cm in length. Most Japanese recipes call for grilling or frying the fish whole with roe. In fact, many people consider the roe the most delicious part of the shishamo fish.
Yellowtail – Buri (鰤)
Also known as amberjack, the yellowtail fish is frequently eaten raw or cooked with soy sauce and mirin. Combined with daikon, it makes a tasty stew. This is a large fish that can grow bigger than 1 meter in length. It’s revered for its soft-textured meat and moderate fat content.
Mackerel – Saba (鯖)
Saba is one of the many kinds of fish that fall under the umbrella term mackerel. Also known as Pacific mackerel, saba is a middle-sized fish that’s typically 30 cm long.
Saba is perhaps the cheapest kind of fish you can find in Japanese stores. Despite its low price point, it’s very healthy, tasty, and loved by many. It’s very oily, has a rich taste, and it’s a great source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Eel – Unagi (鰻)
If you visited Japan, chances are you came across restaurants with a very simple sign at the front – う – the Japanese letter U. This simple sign won’t mean much to a visitor, but all Japanese people know exactly what it signifies: a restaurant that specializes in tasty Unagi dishes.
Unagi is a freshwater eel, frequently eaten with kabayaki sauce. The traditional way of preparing this specialty is grilling over charcoal. It’s not easy to make, but it’s well worth the effort.
Japanese people believe eating this dish helps you withstand heat, so it’s a delicacy many people crave in the summer.
How to choose the right fish for the recipe?
There are plenty of amazing Japanese recipes that you can make at home, even if you buy fish locally. Choosing the right kind of fish won’t be hard, with the exception of species that are endemic to Japan.
However, sometimes you might need to substitute one kind of fish for another, or you might want to experiment with recipes. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
- In general, large fish are good to eat raw. That includes tuna, prawn, squid, sea bream, young yellowtail, sea bass, and flounder.
- Small fish, like sardines, bruise easily and aren’t good to eat raw unless they’re very fresh.
- Prepare fish with shiny, bluish backs carefully. These fish frequently cause allergic reactions. The best way to inhibit bacteria is to store them in salt for a while before eating.
How do Japanese people prepare fish?
Despite the widespread misconception, sushi is not the most common way to consume fish in Japan.
Besides eating fish raw (most frequently in the form of sashimi), Japanese people often grill, broil, stew, steam, bake, and fry fish.
Grilling with salt or a bit of MSG is a very popular way to consume small kinds of fish like shishamo, saury, mackerel, and filleted salmon.
Frying is not particularly healthy, but sometimes it results in a wonderful treat. Fish Katsu (Japanese fried cutlets) is a great example – and Japanese love to make it with flounder or cod.
It’s common to marinade fish like yellowtail in soy sauce before broiling. A dish called Buri Daikon is another popular way to prepare a yellowtail – you only need to stew it with daikon, Japanese radish.
Eating Raw Fish – the Japanese Way
Sashimi and sushi are two of the best-known ways to serve raw fish.
- The term “sashimi” used to mean any food that is cut up, including vegetables and tofu. Today, it refers to platters of thinly sliced raw fish (often multiple kinds) and meat with veggies on the side. The roots of this dish go as far as 500 BCE – attesting to the importance of raw fish-based meals in Japanese culture. The food is cut into bite-size pieces, and arranged neatly on a platter, served along with wasabi, ginger, daikon, or soy sauce.
- Sushi, with its roots as long ago as the 8th century, is a traditional way of serving raw fish so it stays fresh for a long time. Fermented or vinegared rice is wrapped around fresh ingredients to preserve their taste. Today, you can get sushi in all shapes and sizes for a fairly low price almost everywhere in the world.
How to preserve raw fish the traditional way
Part of the reason why Japanese people eat fish raw is that fresh fish is readily available.
However, that wasn’t always the case. Many dishes that call for fresh fish today used to require fish preserved in salt instead. Back before refrigerators, foil packaging, and supermarkets, people needed to store their fish safely for days – so they turned to curing.
Fish like salmon and blue-back fish (mackerel, for example) are often cured. These methods are tested and tried, and used to this day – albeit only for recipes that call for salt-preserved fish rather than completely fresh!
- Beta-jio is a name of a curing method that involved submerging fish into a container with a lot of salt for a few days. The fish is filleted, and the fillets completely submerged in salt and stored at a cool temperature of about 10°C. The salt will absorb moisture from the fish, making it crispier. Sometimes, people use a marinade of vinegar or sake before putting fish in salt. The fillets should be washed off before serving or cooking.
- Kobu-jime – This ancient method doesn’t only help you preserve fish, but it also enriches its taste. You’ll need Kombu seaweed and a bit of vinegar – and you’ll end up with well-preserved fish with hints of umami taste. The first step is to soften your Kombu with sake or vinegar. Then, fillet your fish, sprinkle it with salt, and cover the surface with Kombu. Wrap it tightly, and let it cure for a few hours (or overnight) in the refrigerator. Discard the seaweed once you’re ready to serve or cook!
That’s a Wrap!
Now that you know more about the fish used in Japanese cuisine, you’re ready to dive headfirst into the wonderful world of seafood recipes from the land of the rising sun. Since such a big portion of the Japanese diet is based on marine delicacies, there’s no better place to start exploring!
If you found this article useful, want to add something I forgot to cover, or you’re left with a burning question you want answered, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!