A lot is made about Japan’s “four seasons.” But whether you think that’s special or not, one thing you absolutely must do in Japan is try seasonal food. Known as shun, this untranslatable word reflects the idea that food has the best time to be eaten. This is true for things like fruits and vegetables but also seafood.
What does it mean for fish to be in season? Well, ignoring farm-raised varieties, different species pass close to Japan at different times of the year, so that’s when fishermen head out to catch them. Certain fish may also taste better during certain seasons.
With that in mind, here are five fish types that are at their best in the spring.
1. Tai (Sea bream)
Few kinds of fish are as important as tai (sea bream) in Japan. Japanese people have enjoyed this white meat fish for a long time, evident by the bones found in ancient shell mounds. It’s also often a part of celebrations because of its striking red color and name, which sounds like a part of the Japanese word medetai, or promising.
For example, you can eat it during the New Year’s period of oshogatsu, at a wedding, and during okuizome, the 100th day after a baby’s birth.
Along with being the inspiration for the shape of the desert taiyaki, tai is eaten in several different ways in the spring, when it’s plump for the spawning season. It can be eaten raw, with seared skin as aburi, or with the kawashimozukuri method, where a sushi chef will tenderize the skin with boiling water before cooling it in ice. You can also serve it cooked whole, as part of taimeshi, or seabream with rice, as taichazuke with seabream and tea over rice, or in any other way.
The English name may sound like a Star Wars character you might find in the Cantina on Tatooine, but halfbeak (or needlenose0 is a fish native to Japanese waters. Known locally as sayori, it’s a delicate white fish with a taste that depends on the season. Spring is the best time to enjoy it, and to really appreciate its flavor, eat it raw as nigiri sushi.
The taste is clean and more flavorful than you might expect and is often served with a shiso leaf tucked between the fish and the rice, often visible through the transparent flesh of the fish. The aroma of the leaf adds a delightful counterbalance. For even more of a treat, splurge on the more expensive kannuki variety, which tends to be larger and fattier than others.
3. Shirasu (Whitebait)
You may have seen it in a grocery store, a tray packed full of tiny white fish. These are shirasu (white bait), and they’re actually immature fry of fish rather than a species of their own. The name in Japanese is written 白子, meaning white and child. Usually, very young Japanese anchovies are fished on the Pacific Ocean side of Honshu, generally along the Shizuoka and Kanagawa coasts. Kanagawa’s Enoshima and Kamakura are particularly famous for shirasu.
Shirasu can be eaten raw or cooked, boiled and lightly salted. In Kanagawa, it’s served over rice as shirasudon. Add a raw egg, and it becomes shirasu tsukimidon (moon-viewing shirasu bowl). Although it can be enjoyed raw, shirasu spoils too quickly for transport, meaning you’ll have to trek to the Kanagawa or Shizuoka seaside to try it.
4. Kai (Shellfish)
Spring is a great time for shellfish in Japan. Here are three that I recommend:
- C are at their sweetest in the spring. So they’re common in much Japanese cooking, such as miso soup or steamed with spring onions. They also make a great spaghetti alle vongole, with clams.
- Hamaguri, also known as Orient clams, are found along the coasts of China, Korea, Borneo and Japan. You can eat them as sushi, grilled or steamed with sake. Interestingly, their shells are used to make white stones for the Japanese game go.
- Mirugai is a large saltwater clam with a neck that sticks out beyond the shell. Known as Pacific geoduck in English, it makes chewy and flavorful sushi.
5. Katsuo (skipjack tuna)
Along with tai, katsuo (skipjack tuna) is one of Japan’s most important types of fish. A relative of tuna, red-meat fish becomes one of the main ingredients in Japanese cooking when dried and fermented as katsuobushi (bonito flakes). The meat was served to the foundational Yamato Imperial Court in the third century, and katsuobushi is still offered formally to the gods at shrines. Caught on the Pacific side of the country in the spring and fall, the spring catch yields meat that is light in fat.
Katsuo is served raw as sashimi and sushi, of course, but the most popular way is lightly seared as tataki, a specialty of Kochi Prefecture. You can also have it cooked in a savory sweet sauce as tsukudani, as shiokara cured in salt, or battered and fried. No matter how you enjoy katsuo, you’re eating something with a history stretching back thousands of years.
What’s your favorite seafood dish? Then, enlighten us in the comments section below.