Bragging and knowledge..
(I don’t know everything so any comment/correction/exchange of knowledge is mostly welcomed).
Last year I wrote a lengthy blog post about Japan (very) fine dining. And I’m keen to elaborate on that idea and how, as an informed foreigner traveling to Japan, you can make the most of your situation. Again this is not *basic* knowledge and you may Google for the basic elsewhere. (I’m not a snob but I feel the information above the *basic* doesn’t seem to exist on the Internet so much).
Knowledge – correct or not – is key as it could ignite curiosity of the Japanese, or even better, a conversation. This knowledge isn’t necessarily aimed at chefs but also to your diners next to you. To me, Japan is a country with a stubbornly exclusive mentality and the best you can do to become less excluded is to tease the chefs with what you know and do not know. Direct or indirect conversation that the chefs can hear can lead to an unfolding of a more-than-ordinary experience. (I can’t tell you how exactly to *do it* but you can surely find a way).
(Click the links for photos).
The knowledge I’d like to share today is that of seasons in sushi toppings (i.e. fish, shellfish, whatever). I divide the seasons into 4 (spring, summer, autumn, winter) and focus mainly on what’s available when. There are, of course, sub-seasons in Japan, which in the future I will have more knowledge of and can elaborate. It is also noteworthy that in Japan a few fish and shellfish are enjoyed at different stages in their life and these different stages in life are indicated by different names.
Kisu (Sand Whiting) – white fish, “shirogisu” prime in summer, bitter skin, low fat, prepared “kobujime”
Kazunoko (Herring Roe) – salt pickle, “spring kazunoko” in Hokkaido
Tairagai (Pen Shell) – similar to hotate/scallop but bigger, crunchy and not as sweet, inedible mantles
Torigai (Japanese cockle) – purple black leg like bird beck
Shako (Mantis Shrimp) – 15cm, half ebi half kani, “tsume” sauce, “katsubushi” roe, until summer
Katsuo (Bonito) – “first” or “spring” katsuo, lean
Karei (Flounder) – translucent, “engawa” fin sinew
Kawahagi (Filefish) – firm, rough skin, prepared “kobujime”, liver usage
Kochi – “fugu of summer”, tough, Kinkai area
Suzuki (Perch/Sea Bass) – not good in August due to spawning, stomach fattier than backbone area, 4yr old name (koppa – young; seigo – 1yr; fukko – 2-3yr)
Aji (Horse Mackerel) – “maaji”
Awabi (Abalone) – “kuroawabi” high price, “mushiawabi” simmered, “wata” intestines, until autumn
Anago (Sea Eel) – June and rainy season, “tsume” sauce, half as fatty as unagi
Ika (Big Fin Squid) – “aoriika” most popular but also “sumiika” thick and chewy “yariika” spring “hotaruika”, “geso” tentacles
Kurumaebi (Prawn) – 20cm long, “odori” prepares raw, age variations “saimaki” “maki” “kurumaebi” “ogurama”
Tako (Octopus) – 2-3kg, “madako” from Akashi, “yudedako” boiled in coarse tea, “namadako” raw, massaging, until autumn
Katsuo (Bonito) – “returning”, fatty, twice as big, hay-grilled
Hirame (Marbled Sole) – mature taste, “kanbirame” caught in mid winter, from Aomori
Kohada (Gizzard Shad) – salted and vinegared, 2nd stage of its age (shinko – spring and young; kohada; nakazumi; konoshiro)
Saba (Mackerel) – “shime-saba” prepared marinated, “sekisaba” in winter from Oita
Ikura (Salmon Roe) – thinner membrane in early season
Tai (Sea Bream) – high status, “matsukawa-zukuri” served with blanched skin, fat between skin and meat
Sayori (Half Beak) – “wazukuri” prepared with whole fish, until spring
Shirauo (Glassfish) – transparent, bay but swim upriver in spring
Uni (Sea Urchin) – white and red kinds, short or long spikes, “murasakiuni” “bafununi” “ezobafununi” from Hokkaido, “akauni” from western Japan, until summer
Aoyagi (Orange Clam) – “bakagai” parboiled, “kobashira the eye, “oboshi” big kobashira and “koboshi” small kobashira, shell similar to Hamaguri, until spring
Akagai (Bloody Clam) – “himo” mantle, until spring
Hamaguri (Hard Clam) – “sakamushi” steamed with sake, “nitsume” concentrated soy mirin infusion
Hokkigai (Surf Clam) – “ubagai” real name but “hokki” because of Hokkaido, greyish brown when raw and peachy red when cooked, until spring
Mirugai (Giant Clam) – “miru” seaweed growing on the shell, golden brown meat
Read more about Tsukiji Market if you want..
Tuna / Honmaguro
Maguro (Tuna) – over 3m, Oma coast in Aomori, highly priced, taste maturing in winter
Apart from Japan, tuna from Spain is also highly sought after. You can also find – yep get ya boat out! – tuna in Portugal, Greece, Croatia and Ireland. I’m not sure which route they swim just yet.. -__-”
These are the common categorization..
Akami (lean – near spine)
Chutoro (half fatty – near skin)
Otoro (fatty – belly)
You will also get the “half-half” kind of cut, such as Chu-o-toro and the Chu-toro that is close to the Akami.
Akami (lead, red meat) can taste quite bloody, depending how close to the blood vessel (the inner part closed to spine) that cut of Akami is. Some people prefer bloody taste; some don’t. One of the means to dilute the blood taste of the Akami part is “Zuke” (marinated/pickled in soy sauce). The Akami that is close to the tail is leaner and slightly paler.
To make things more complicated…
A tuna fish is generally divided into 3 parts, from head to tail.
Kami (near the head)
Naka (middle part)
Shimo (near the tail)
Se (back part)
Hara (belly part)
Both Se-toro and O-toro are fatty but Se-toro (found in the back part) is less fatty than O-toro. Also the O-toro that is close to the head (Kami) is fattier than the O-toro that is close to the tail (Shimo). The reputedly *best* part of O-toro is called Hara Kami Ichi Ban, which is the belly closer to the head. One of the rarest and fattiest parts of tuna and the oiliest is Kama-toro or tuna collar. It is also the most expensive.
The fattiest doesn’t necessarily mean the tastiest (in my opinion). Some very fatty cuts don’t have the complexity of blood taste. And the means to make the fat taste more complex is to sear it with charcoal (or blow torch). This method is called “Aburi”.
There is also a kind of sushi that combines the lean red meat with scraping of fat directly under the skin. (Generally cheaper than the fatty bits). This is called Maguro Kawagishi (red meat with oil under skin). It’s usually served as a Gunkan-maki. This only works with native tuna. The fat under the skin of farmed tuna is reportedly smelly.
Tuna belly generally contains a lot of sinews. Often they are unpleasant. There comes the ageing process to soften the sinews and enhance the taste of tuna is called “jyukusei” (“jyuku” reaching the peak; “sei” to become).
The bone marrow of tuna is also edible.
This interest of mine in tuna took me to a sushi restaurant called Irifune.
(Special thanks to this guy for some lecture on tuna).
Irifune for tuna?
Irifune is a no-star sushi-ya in Tokyo’s suburban area of Okusawa. The itamae is known for buying the *best* of tuna (honmaguro) from Tsukiji Market.
Personally I think it is a good restaurant but it’s not life-changing. The care that goes into fine-tuning temperature, etc. is missing. The rice makes no impact. Quite glue-y and lacking in movement. It is also not true that if you go you’d necessarily experience (and learn by tasting) many obscure cuts of tuna. You need to be able to tell the difference and to order it by kind. (I chanced into a kama-toro (tuna collar) because I could identify it by look rather than being given).
The best way to eat a lot of tuna at Irifune, in my opinion, is to get the tuna donburi, rather than having an “omakase” sushi set. In your donburi, you’ll be served o-toro from various parts of tuna, chu-toro, maguro and aburi-toro.
A full photo album is here