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Saturday, April 14, 2001


No more excuses for not knowing your fish

Confused by all the different kinds of fish in Japan? I have learned to recognize fish by studying their facial expressions as they lay on my plate. It also helps to know which fish are served in which seasons.

Why certain fish are only available in certain seasons is a wonder. As far as I know, fish are home year-round and don't take vacations. Thus they could be caught anytime. But since fisherman have a schedule, knowing this schedule will help you classify fish.

Here is a guide to some of the most common, and the most angry, fish in Japan.

"Tai" -- red snapper or sea bream. Tai, served whole with head and tail, is used for celebrations. It is very expensive and is therefore served only on special days such as birthdays. Season: spring and late summer. Expression: Surprise (upon finding out the real reason he was invited to the party).

"Anago" -- eel. Eel has a lot of protein, thus its reputation for restoring the body's strength, especially in the hot summer. Eel is broiled and served brushed with a sweet sauce. There is a specially designated eel-eating day in Japan that takes place 18 days before the change of summer to autumn, according to the lunar calendar. This day is called, logically, "Ox Day." There is nothing electric about eels in Japan. They're all battery-powered. Facial expression: so angry that head is not usually included with meal.

"Hirame" -- flounder. White, soft and easy to eat as sashimi. "Shitabirame," or tongue hirame, is often served alongside a warm sauce. Shitabirame is called "geta" by fisherman because the shape of the fish looks like the old wooden Japanese sandals. Luckily the fish doesn't make the same clunky noise. Season: winter. Expression: disturbed.

"Katsuo" -- bonito. Despite the name, this fish is not beautiful. This fish is a real flake and looks like it, too. The English translation is actually Spanish and serves as a euphemism for the true English translation-- "wood shavings." Bonito, often referred to by "gaijin" as the "dancing fish" because it never really stops moving, is served dried on top of "okonomiyaki" and often tofu and salads. Season: in its dried form, year-round. Expression: Hey baby, wanna dance?

"Shake" -- Salmon. I call it the stalker fish because you just can't get away from this fish in Japan. Salmon seems to be wherever you go -- in the grocery store, in the refrigerated "obento" at the convenience store, hiding in sandwiches at the cafeteria. Season: all seasons, even when it's not in season. Expression: NA. I don't think salmon have heads.

"Suzuki" -- sea bass. Called different names depending on its size. Baby suzuki, up to 30 cm, are called "seigo." From 30 cm to 50 cm, they're called "hane." Above 50 cm they're called "suzuki." Aren't you glad people don't do that? When he was a baby, his name was Ted, when he became a teenager, his name was Jed and now as an adult, his name is Arrol. Season: summer. Expression: baked.

"Iwashi" -- sardines. Sardines are easy to eat: take off the head, or not, and eat the whole thing, bones and all. Season: fall. Expression: eat me!

For those finicky eaters who want only the fish bones, you can order "honesenbei." The bones are baked, which makes them brittle and crunchy. Try bones of the eel and hirame.

"Maguro" -- tuna. By and large, mostly large, tuna are the angriest fish in Japan. I'd be angry too if I was a tuna: Every year an entire tuna is used as an offering to the Nishinomiya Shrine in Hyogo Prefecture. People pray to Ebisu, the god of commerce, by placing coins and bills on the fish. In 1999, a 3-meter-long bluefin tuna weighed 285 kg -- enough to feed 150 Japanese people, or two hungry Americans. Season: winter. Expression: You're going to hell for this!

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com

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