Fish at Nishiki Market, © Kirk Vuillemot 2009
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Aka-gai (ark shell)
Often seen at sushi restaurants, aka-gai ("red clam") look like flower petals, starting out white at the base and turning bright red at the pointed tip. Although they are available year round, the best season is April & May.

Aka-gai, (c) 2010 Risa Sekiguchi

Anago (conger eel)
Anago are saltwater eels, somewhat similar in taste and texture to unagi (freshwater eel). The best anago are caught near Haneda in Tokyo Bay. Anago is used for sushi, where it is usually boiled to get rid of excess oil, and then roasted and covered with a sweet sauce. Although precooked unagi is available at Japanese markets, anago is rarely available.

Anago, conger eel, (c) 2010 Risa Sekiguchi

Awabi (abalone)
Abalone is enjoyed raw, or salted and steamed. It is rare to find awabi in the West, and is usually quite expensive. Female abalone from the Chiba region are said to be the best for steaming, while blue male abalone are best for sushi and sashimi. As expected, cooking changes the flavor and texture of the abalone, and it’s hard for me to decide which one I prefer. TOP

Ebi (shrimp)
The most common type of shrimp found in Japan is kuruma ebi, a large variety which has grey shells and reddish brown stripes.  It is enjoyed raw (as in the infamous odori, or “dancing” shrimp), simmered, stir fried or deep fried in tempura batter or bread crumbs. Ise ebi (spiny lobster) is enjoyed during the New Year’s celebrations, and tiny ama ebi (sweet shrimp) is enjoyed raw. TOP

Ebi: Japanese shrimp

Fugu (blowfish)
This famed fish is known for the deadly poison contained in its liver and ovaries, which causes muscle paralysis and can be lethal if not prepared correctly. Regardless of this, it is a delicacy that is enjoyed in the winter months, usually in a delicious dish called tetchiri. Restaurants throughout Japan offer set courses around this main course, which is a hot pot with fugu, tofu and vegetables, simmered at your table and served with ponzu sauce. Before this, tessari, thinly sliced and artfully arranged fugu sashimi is served, as well as fugu kara-age (fried blowfish) and other dishes. When cut up, fugu resembles chicken more than fish, and has a similarly dense meat and unusual flat – instead of spiny – bones, which are high in gelatin. There is very little danger in dying from poisoning these days, as chefs must be specially licensed – passing a vigorous test – in order to prepare fugu. TOP

Hamachi (yellowtail tuna)
This is my favorite variety of sashimi and sushi. I love its buttery, rich flavor and sumputous mouth feel. The fat content, which is high, is even higher in the winter months, when it is called buri instead of hamachi. Both are offered at Japanese market, but can be hard to find elsewhere. TOP

Himono (sun-dried fish and seafood)
The process of sun-drying fish has been in place since ancient times as a method of preservation. While some fish are dried completely, to be used in soup stock or reconstituted and simmered in soy sauce, larger fish such as shima hokke (horse mackerel) are gutted, opened flat and then salted and hung to dry in the sun and fresh air until they lose 50% of their original moisture content. This method has the effect of firming the texture and intensifying the flavor of the fish. Amino acids are present in greater quantities in himono, adding a depth of flavor and improving its nutritional content. If you have ever had the opportunity to broil freshly caught and filleted fish, you know that a lot of water is given off in the cooking process. Sun drying serves to lock in the taste while getting rid of excess water.
One of my friends does this every January, when the air is cold and dry enough. She hangs fish in netting on her apartment balcony in Tokyo! I can’t imagine doing something like this in Chicago, and besides, himono are packaged ready to grill or broil, for ridiculously cheap prices in the refrigerated section at my Japanese market. She insists, however, that the effort is worthwhile for the superior flavor.
Himono often make their appearance at breakfast, along with rice, miso soup, natto and pickles. TOP

Ika (squid)
There are several varieties of squid available in Japan, including surume ika, which is dried, cut into strips and enjoyed as a salty and chewy snack with sake or beer, and aori ika, whose translucent white, soft and creamy flesh is used for sushi and sashimi. Delightfully delicate and soft ika somen, cut into thin strips with just a hint of salt, is one of my favorite ways to enjoy squid. In the spring, tiny and delicate hotaru ika, or firely squid (so named because they glow) are served in many of Japan’s better restaurants, often with miso sauce and rape blossoms. In the West, small squid used for calamari makes delicious ika tempura, and is also good in okonomiyaki. Squid is high in protein and low in fat. TOP

Ikura (salmon roe)
Oddly enough, the name comes from the Russian word for fish eggs. The whole ovaries are washed in warm water to separate the individual eggs, then coated in olive oil to preserve their glossiness. The bright red eggs are about the size of pearls and are often used as garnishes, where they lend elegance, color, and a burst of flavor. They are also enjoyed in sushi or atop donburis. The eggs have soft skins that pleasantly burst in your mouth with highly flavored oil. Ikura is higher in fat and protein than salmon. Found mostly in Japanese groceries, these delicious jewels last up to a week in the fridge. TOP

Katsuo (bonito) and Katsuo bushi
These migratory fish, from the mackerel family, are known for being fast swimmers, even swimming in their sleep. They like warm water, so they are found in late March in Kyushu, migrating to Hokkaido in June. When they return south in autumn, they are enjoyed for their high fat content and buttery flavor. Kastuo no tataki is the most common way to prepare it; pieces are charcoal-grilled over a high flame, but the center is still raw.
The smaller fish are cooked, dried and shaped into wood-like pieces for katsuo bushi, one of the main ingredients for making dashi. Katsuo bushi can be purchased in individual air tight packets, or larger bags. It looks like paper-thin wood shavings, and has a smoky aroma. It is often served simply, sprinkled over tofu, or boiled vegetables such as spinach, with soy sauce. When in Japan, try some freshly shaved. TOP

Katsuobushi

Kazunoko
This rare delicacy, literally translated as “many children,” is required eating during Oshogatsu, the New Year’s Day celebration. Historically, this unique and pricey herring roe symbolized fertility and prosperity, and no wonder: A single herring ovary can contain as many as 100,000 eggs! The golden-colored roe has a crunchy and rubbery texture similar to tobiko, but the tiny eggs are clumped together instead of separated. Kazunoko can also be found attached to kelp on both sides, on which herring traditionally lay their eggs (which I prefer, because the deep green kombu, perfectly coated on both sides with golden roe, is a visual miracle when cut into slices). Most of the world’s kazunoko is harvested in Alaska and Canada and consumed in Japan. The price is steep, at $25 or more per pound, which adds to its special allure. TOP

Maguro (tuna)
Although the Japanese were eating tuna for over 10,000 years, its popularity is relatively recent. Its red or pink color and heavier flavor were better appreciated after the introduction of meat in the early 19th century, and after the production of soy sauce, which goes particularly well with it. It wasn’t until the end of WWII that the fatty belly became more valuable than the leaner back portion.
Akami, meaning red meat, is deep red and comes from the lean top part. It is sometimes available at regular grocery stores in vacuum sealed packages.
Chu toro (medium toro) is the next grade up: it is pink and has a higher fat content.
O toro (big toro) is the most expensive cut, taken from the lowest part of the belly next to the head. In the states, it is hard to find, but when available, it costs more than $50 per pound. Its buttery texture literally melts in your mouth, and is one of the joys in life.
It is best to enjoy tuna, as well as any other raw fish, on the day it is bought. Some people, my parents included, keep maguro frozen so that it can be enjoyed at any time. Tuna contains DHA, which slows the deterioration of brain cells, and EPA, which prevents the hardening of the arteries. TOP

Neri-mono (fish cakes)
Similar to fish balls found in Thailand and Vietnam, neri-mono are made of white-fleshed fish, such as flounder, that is pounded, pureed and seasoned with salt & sugar and then steamed or fried.
Chikuwa looks like a hollow sausage. The hole comes from the way it is made- with the paste formed onto bamboo sticks, which are then steamed and broiled. The broiling forms a thin golden “crust” that is not crunchy. It is delicious in hotpot dishes such as oden.
Kamaboko is formed into half rounds on small wooden boards. It is usually white, but can be found tinged with pink edges, especially during festivals like New Years and during cherry blossom season. Kids like its mildly sweet flavor and texture. It is cut into slices and eaten plain, without sauces or added seasonings.
Satsuma age, named for the Kyushu area it comes from, is fish paste that is formed into various shapes and fried. It is also a nice addition to oden.
Hanpen looks like white foam rubber, and has just about as much taste. It is made of pureed shark meat, potato and egg whites and lends a fluffy texture to oden. TOP

Kamaboko

Saba (mackerel)
Although I love saba salted, grilled and served with grated daikon, or preserved in vinegar and pressed into sushi, it has an intensely "fishy" flavor that not everyone appreciates. It goes particularly well with ginger, and is a staple at our house because of its availability and low price. Saba has a beautiful, streamlined profile and shimmering silver and blue striped skin. TOP

Sake/Shake (salmon)
There are so many varieties of salmon available today. The kind most often served in Japan has bright red flesh. It is most often salted to a high degree, and served grilled, but is also delicious unsalted as sashimi. If you are in Japan, ask for fatty salmon, which comes from the belly portion and is wonderfully decadent. Occasionally, I'll buy salmon at Western markets, which I treat as a different variety, by broiling or grilling with sweet miso sauce. TOP

Sanma (Pacific saury)
This silvery, long and slender fish is one of my favorites. I simply salt and broil it whole, bones, guts and all, and serve it with grated daikon and soy sauce. One whole 10-12" fish makes a perfect serving. The guts are bitter and may be challenging to Westerners, but many Japanese love the taste. It’s usually available for low prices at Japanese markets in the West, but if you are ever in Japan during the late fall and early winter, you can also find sanma sashimi, which is delicate in texture and surprisingly, not at all strong in flavor. The best season for sanma is autumn, because their fat content is high (as much as 20%). TOP

sanma

Tai (sea bream)
Tai is considered a special variety of fish – elegant in form, it is the centerpiece of the all-important Oshogatsu New Year’s celebration, roasted and served whole. Tai is somewhat similar in appearance and taste to red snapper, and is hard to find at Japanese grocery stores, apart from at this time. The flesh is white, with a delicate and sweet flavor. The season runs from winter to spring; a delicious (if puzzling to westerners) spring dish is tai heads simmered in sweet ginger and soy broth. Being a large fish, normally over a foot long, the heads can be 6" to 8" wide and contain ample meat. Tai is also delicious raw in sushi and sashimi, where it is considered a treat. It is low in fat and high in vitamin B1.
My father’s signature dish during New Years is tai glazed with uni (sea urchin) sauce, and it never ceases to amaze our guests. He expertly filets and dices the flesh into diamonds, which are roasted and glazed with the sauce, and then carefully arranged onto the roasted carcass. For extra flare, he skewers the carcass to look like it is swimming, and then for a final dramatic flare, dips the fins and tail in coarse salt, which give a beautiful accent. After the celebration is over, the head and bones go into the stock-pot to make a delicious, hearty soup. TOP

Tako (octopus)
Octopus is not consumed raw, but boiled, and it is rare (even in Japan) to see it available raw. The tentacles, which have white flesh and skin that turns red when cooked, are sliced and served atop sushi. The heads are cut up and served in salads, typically with cucumber. At Japan’s festivals, flea markets and wherever ample pedestrians are to be found, tako-yaki stands serve flavorful, piping hot balls of batter filled with diced tako, cabbage and ginger. TOP

Tori-gai (cockles)
I was delighted to find this familiar clam at a raw bar in London. It’s nice to know that other cultures appreciate raw seafood as much as the Japanese do. While most clams are at their best in the winter months, the season for tori-gai is spring and summer. The delicate yet springy texture and sweet flavor are always a hit, even with people who don’t normally like clams. TOP

Unagi (freshwater eel)
Unagi is usually consumed in August, at the height of the hot season. This has always struck me as odd, because the fatty, rich flavor seems better suited for winter. There is, however, a good reason for this, as unagi is high in vitamin B, and is said to conquer fatigue. It is usually filleted and roasted over charcoal and basted with a specially made sweet soy sauce that contains stock made from the simmered bones and heads of unagi. Restaurants that feature unagi roast them over charcoal, streetside, enticing passers-by with their delicious aroma. In the West, it is found pre-cooked, in vacuum sealed packages. It is delicious lightly broiled (just hot enough for the fat to sizzle) and served over hot rice with an ample sprinkling of sansho pepper. While unagi is used for nigiri or pressed sushi in Japan, it is often included in various maki rolls in the West, covered by additional sweet sauce. This is not authentic, but I find it tasty. TOP

Uni (sea urchin)
The spiny black sea urchin holds a precious treasure inside its hard shell: its luscious, golden-orange ovaries, which are prized for their delicate and distinctive flavor and melt-in-your-mouth, buttery texture. Despite the fact that uni is harvested off the Pacific Coast of the US, I have yet to find anything locally that compares with the quality found in Japan. If westerners are turned off by uni, it is because they’ve never had it suitably fresh. It should not have any hint of fishiness or even smell of the sea. Uni is available at Japanese markets, packaged on top of wooden blocks. It is also available as a potent paste that is highly seasoned with alcohol and sold in small bottles. TOP

Uni, sea urchin (c) 2010 Risa Sekiguchi

 

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