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Sunday, Dec. 9, 2007


A country defined by fish

Special to The Japan Times

Culture and cuisine are closely intertwined in Japan, and especially as regards seafood.

News photo
The Oma Tuna Festival, held every October, attracts crowds of sashimi gourmands. HILLEL WRIGHT PHOTOS

Since bright colors such as red or yellow are considered to be lucky, Japanese New Year dishes include tai (sea bream or red snapper) or buri (yellowtail) to ensure an auspicious start to the year. Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost prefecture, is famous for king crab and salmon, while Okinawa, in the subtropical south, is known for its colorful irabucha (parrot fish).

Seasonal foods, although differing region by region, include fugu (blowfish) and anko (anglerfish) in winter, iwashi (sardine) and katsuo (skipjack) in the spring, unagi (freshwater eel) and ayu (sweetfish) in summer, and sanma (saury) and saba (mackerel) in the fall.

Tuna, however, is the king of fish for the Japanese, and, according to Masuo Ide, editor of fishery industry newspaper Suisan Times, the country consumes more tuna than any other kind of fish.

The caveat is the definition of what constitutes a tuna. Six Pacific Ocean tuna species are caught by Japan-based fleets fishing in domestic or international waters and landed at Japanese ports. These are, in order of most to least tons landed at Yaizu, Japan's largest tuna port: skipjack, yellowfin (kihada), albacore (bin naga), bigeye (mebachi), Southern bluefin (minami maguro), and "true" tuna (hon maguro).

In addition, Japanese fish farmers are raising Northern or Atlantic bluefin and many Japanese fishing ports include blue marlin (mekajiki) and broadbill swordfish (kajiki) in the general tuna category. Indeed, some fish markets and restaurants refer to these billfish as "kajiki maguro" — maguro being the Japanese generic name for tuna.

News photo
A tuna-heavy lunch set at Oma-zaki, the northern-most tip of Honshu island.

Japan is also a major importer of tuna from other countries and regions. In total, the Japanese eat nearly 600,000 tons per year — about 30 percent of the world's total. While skipjack is consumed in a variety of forms by the Japanese, including dried flakes (katsuo bushi) used to make dashi (the stock for miso soup), seared slices, and as canned fish, the larger varieties are preferred for sushi. For servings at ordinary sushi shops and the increasingly popular kaiten zushi — revolving sushi bars — yellowfin are most plentiful and at their best in the spring, bigeye in summer and autumn, and bluefin in winter.

Maguro is the red-colored flesh from the muscular upper body and is the leanest and cheapest. The lighter-colored meat from the rear of the belly, chutoro, is fattier and more expensive, while the forebelly's pinkish flesh that's marbled with white fat — like Kobe beef — is otoro, the most expensive.

Pacific bluefin tuna from Oma will never be found at kaiten zushi bars or ordinary sushi restaurants. Oma tuna has achieved an exclusive brandlike status in Japan and is dealt to gourmet sushi establishments and to other fine dining restaurants, especially those that specialize in tuna cuisine.

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