Tai (Sea Bream)
Tai is considered one of the most exquisite of the Shiromi dane. Among the more than 200 species of Tai but there is only one which is considered special and that is the Madai. The Japanese use the prefix “Ma” 真 which means “true” to mean the proper fish to use for sushi. Madai is very expensive in Japan because, like sharks fins, it is the one fish that should always be served during happy events like Weddings, New Year and the birth of a new baby because the name “Madai” sounds like “Medetai” which is the Japanese word for “Celebratory” and “Auspicious”. Have you ever eaten those Japanese fish shaped pancakes? Well they are called Tai yaki and they are made in the shape of the Madai.
Since Madai is the most sought after Tai in the sushi bar, it pays to make sure that the fish you are being served is a Madai rather than one of the cheaper Tai. The Madai is said to have 11 to 13 spines on the dorsal fin and there are some blue spots on the dorsal half of the fish. It is quite large, usually around 50cm. Nowadays, most of the Madai served at Sushi bars is farmed, so you can get Madai all year round. The farmed Madai look different from the wild version. It’s darker in colour and the tail is more rounded whereas the tail of the wild Madai (Tennen Tai) has sharp pointed ends. (Link to photo here).
Madai is one of those fish that are often served ikizukuri style. This is when the fish is killed live and its flesh sliced into bite sized pieces while the mouth is still moving. Fish that is eaten this fresh is often very chewy but not as flavourful as when it is left to mature for a while. In Singapore we often only get to eat it nojime (after rigor mortis) since it takes a few days for the fish to be flown here after it is slaughtered. Madai is often slaughtered ikejime style which is a special way of slaughtering the fish so that its flesh will retain its freshness as long as possible.
Sometimes, the chef will serve Madai with its skin on. This way of preparation is known as matsukawa-zukuri (pine bark) and what happens is that the skin surface is covered with a piece of cloth before hot water is poured over it and then the whole fillet is immediately cooled in ice. This causes the skin to pucker up to look like pine bark but at the same time tenderizes it. This preserves that layer of fat under the skin which makes it more flavourful.
Kinmedai (Splendid Alfonsino)
This fish is easily recogized by its huge eyes and bright red colour. The name Kinmedai means “Golden Eye” Tai in Japanese and the reason the eyes are so huge is because they live in very deep water where it is very dark, so the big eyes allow more light to be detected. It is best from December to March when the fish gets very oily and tasty.
This is probably the easiest of the Shiromi-dane to recognize as it is always betrayed by its pink translucent flesh. Being a deep water fish, its flesh is oilier than the Madai and mostSushi Tsus would look out for it when it is in season at the end of winter.
There are more than 500 types of flat fish and even in the English speaking world their names are confusing. Halibut, Sole, Flounder and Turbot are all bottom dwelling fish which start life looking very much like a normal fish but as they mature they undergo as Salvador Dali like transformation when its face is “smeared” towards one side. The Japanese broadly categorize the ones that face to the left Hirame whiles the ones that face to the right, Karei.
The Tokyo Bay used to be flourishing with these flatfish which is typically best eaten during winter. (Season: Sep to Mar) The Olive Flounder (paralichythys olivaceus) is commonly found in the waters surrounding Japan and Korea and is usually what is served when you order Hirame. This fish is quite a predator and has large mouth with fiercesome teeth. During winter, the fish puts on a nice layer of fat under the skin and it is the expert Itamae who would be able to remove the skin while preserving that layer of fat.
During the Summer months (Apr-Sep) Mako-Garei (Marble Flounder, Pseudopleuronectes yokohamae) is often served when shiromi dane is ordered. This fish has a smaller mouth than the Olive Flounder so the fish appears less fearsome. The flesh is less fat during the summer months but it is no less tasty. Top sushi restaurants might serve Hoshi-Garei (Spotted Halibut) which is traditionally considered to be the tastiest Karei. But this fish is not very common, so if your itamae tells you that he managed to get his hand on some Hoshi-Garei, then make sure you try it!
In Singapore, Hirame and Karei can refer to any species of flatfish as they can be sourced from all round the world. So, if they still have a whole fish lying on the ice, you can try to see if you can identify it as Olive or Marbled Flounder. However, it is said that most of the other species of flounders taste almost the same and indeed, unless you eat a lot of Hirame, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference. The sushi is usually served with just a sprinkling of salt and a dash of citrus in order to bring out the natural fresh flavour of the fish. The better sushi places might wrap the fillet with Konbu to allow the fish to mature and develop flavour.
Now, if you have been visiting a certain Sushi Bar one day the Itamae offers you a piece of Engawa, then it shows that you have achieved a certain status in that restaurant. The Engawa is that bit of hardworking muscle next to the fins and each fish has only four strips (eight servings) of it, so the Itamae won’t offer it to just anyone. This tane is as prized as otoro and is considered the prime Shiromi dane. Because it is a hardworking muscle, it is quite chewy and it is during the process of mastication that glycogen is released from the muscles which in turn start to turn into simpler sugars as it mixes with the saliva in your mouth. Thus this is a sushi which you need to chew slowly in order to savour!
The photos are made possible through the help of my friends at:
M Hotel, Level 9
81 Anson Road
Tel: +65 6500 6121
1. Edomae Sushi, Kikuo Shimizu, Kodansha International, 2011
2. The Sushi Menu Book, Ikeda Publishing, K.K. Ikeda . Shoten 2008
3. Sushi, Kazuo Nagayama, PIE International, 2011