5 Delicious Summer Fish in Japan
Japan’s Top Seafood For The Hottest Season
As the daily highs get higher across Japan, the waters are abound with fresh seafood to help you beat the heat. Read on for five of the finest fish to grace your plate this summer and how they are most famously prepared.
Whether you prefer your seafood as sashimi or fresh off the grill, summer in Japan is a veritable treasure trove of fish. Perhaps these sea creatures pair especially well with the scorching heat of the season, or perhaps I am nostalgic for my very first taste of Japanese sushi all those years ago. But, in my opinion, Japan’s summer seafood crop is among my favorites of the year.
Known as sea bass in English, suzuki is a summer white fish that goes by several names depending on its age and size. Called koppa at birth, it matures into seigo and then fukko before finally growing up into suzuki at the age of three years old or reaching a length of at least 60 centimeters. The taste of suzuki differs depending on the part of the body you are eating. As with many fish, the belly is the fattiest part and has a soft texture, while other cuts are firmer and chewier, but deliciously sweet nonetheless.
While suzuki can be found in many waters off the coast of Japan, Chiba accounted for nearly a quarter of all caught in 2021 followed by Hyogo, Miyagi, Aichi and Kanagawa prefectures. Although not one of the largest sources of sea bass, Shimane prefecture prepares a well-known delicacy called suzuki no houshoyaki. Designated as one of the Seven Treasures of Lake Shinjiko, this suzuki is first wrapped in special paper, then steamed and grilled. Top it off with a little soy sauce or sudachi, a Japanese citrus, and fill your mouth with its savory notes.
Native to East Asia and found throughout Japan, ayu (sweetfish) are beloved for their distinctively sweet flesh with aromas akin to melon and cucumbers. While some populations of ayu live their entire lives in lakes, like Lake Biwa, the typical life cycle of wild ayu involves spawning in freshwater rivers, migrating to the ocean and then returning a year later to breed. The ayu fishing season begins in early summer when the young fish swim back upstream and continues until autumn.
The sweetness of ayu may derive from its consumption of a particular moss that only grows in the cleanest of waters and is an essential nutrient for the fish. As the representative fish of Gunma, Gifu and Nara, ayu features prominently on summer menus in these prefectures where they are popularly served salted, grilled and skewered in a wave-like shape to mimic swimming.
Whether you’re already a fan of unagi (eel) or are curious about trying it for the first time, you should mark July 30th, Doyo-no sushi no hi (midsummer day of the ox) on your calendars. All across Japan, people gather to eat eel to help endure the blistering heat. This tradition began when a well-known Japanese doctor in the Edo period helped a struggling shop owner facing dismal eel sales during the summer months. Using a mixture of Japanese language wordplay and the Chinese zodiac calendar system, the physician suggested that eel held the nutritional benefits that would get people through the sweltering inferno of summer.
Although their shrinking population has caused the price of eel to increase in recent years, you can still find eel throughout Japan from convenience stores to the fanciest eateries. Unagi no kabayaki, a rice bowl topped with grilled eel marinated in soy sauce, sugar, sake and other seasonings, is the most common way to eat eel. Why not see for yourself how the tradition holds up as you try to beat the summer heat?
Japanese Tiger Prawn
Visit any sushi shop in the summer, from conveyor belt chains to intimate restos spotlighting a chef’s virtuosity with a blade, and you’re likely to find kuruma ebi on the menu. Among the most common varieties of shrimp served in Japan, kuruma ebi, known as Japanese tiger prawn in English, is also one of the freshest served at restaurants. Delivered to kitchens across the country still alive in styrofoam containers, they are typically killed in the moments just before their preparation. Wary of shrimp? This crustacean can be plated in a myriad of ways so you can find the ones that suit your palette best.
While it can be eaten raw, this ebi is also often skewered, boiled in a mixture of salted water and vinegar before being peeled and placed on a piece of rice alongside its own liver. The result is a slightly warm, creamy texture, packing plenty of sweetness and umami.
Aji, also known as horse mackerel, is a relatively inexpensive fish that is common in Japanese home cooking as well as on restaurant menus in the summertime. While aji can be eaten most times of the year, its most popular season is summer towards the end of their spawning period. Found swimming alongside the warm waters of the Japanese coastline, aji are fatty fish that can be served in various ways.
The freshest catches tend to be best enjoyed raw as sashimi, while those who prefer their seafood cooked should check them out fried or grilled. If you’re looking for a special treat, look no further than seki aji, a premium variety that comes exclusively from the Bungo Channel between Oita and Ehime prefectures. Often served with kabosu, a Japanese citrus somewhere between a lemon and lime, seki aji has a fresh and sharp flavor to cut through the hottest summer day.
Next time you stroll past a sushi restaurant or supermarket, pop in and check out what they have to offer. As temperatures climb, what better way to feel healthy and refreshed than by sampling the freshest fish this side of summer?