5 Seasonal Spring Fish in Japan
Make the most of the springtime weather with the freshest fish around
Whether prepared in washoku (Japanese style) or youshoku (Western style), the five fish below are the best spring has to offer. Read on for more about these ocean specialties and the most popular dishes of the season.
With the gentle spring breeze in Japan and the blooming and scattering of cherry blossoms come the delicately flavored spring fish. Indeed, one of the joys of living here is the seasonal rotation of ocean catches and the dishes that let their flavors shine through.
Below are five fish that are delicious when combined with other spring specialties, like veggies such as rapeseed, or as sashimi to enjoy their light flavors in their purest form.
Tai (Sea Bream) and, more specifically, matai, a redfish with hard scales, has long been revered in Japan. Ever since the Seven Gods of Fortune and the God of Fishing and Commerce caught it, tai has been known as the medetai (joy and congratulatory) fish. It is often served whole, with its head, on special occasions and is particularly delicious in the springtime. As such, so-called sakura dai (cherry blossom sea bream) are highly prized.
The flavor of this fish is considered very refined and subtle. With a toothy bite and sweetness as well as heartiness, it is quite popular as sashimi or as carpaccio. In the spring, it is sometimes paired with other seasonal ingredients, like na no hana (rapeseed) for a fresh meal. The taste of matai caught in various regions of Japan like Nagasaki and Mie can differ, so try getting your hands on this fish from different prefectures!
Katsuo (Skipjack Tuna/Bonito) is both a spring and fall specialty however the first catches of the spring are known for their particularly refreshing taste. Like most fish, the best time to catch it differs across Japan, but with a seasonal period ranging from March until early June, katsuo is very much a springtime food.
While this fish is often processed into foods like katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) and shutou (pickled bonito entrails), it is also very tasty fresh, provided that you take care to prevent its delicate flesh from drying out. As such, spring katsuo is often used in sashimi and as tataki (finely chopped fish) rather than in cooked dishes. When paired with Western flavors as well, it is usually raw in carpaccio and tartar.
Sawara (Spanish Mackerel), whose kanji (鰆) combines both “fish” and “spring,” is the literal representation of springtime seasonal fish in Japan. Sawara is commonly caught in the Seto Inland Sea in western Japan between April to May as the sawara return to their birthplaces to lay their eggs. Sawara is a succulent fish with white flesh that can be enjoyed by people of all ages as it has a mild flavor and not too many bones.
Sawara is a fatty and oily fish that is best suited to being seared and topped with a sweet glaze or doused with a butter-soy sauce combo for a truly indulgent experience. In a youshoku style of preparation, it is popular to pair it with butter and wine by roasting it in foil, for example.
Karei (Righteye Flounder) is a fish that is very similar to hirame, another popular species of flounder in Japan. While over 40 distinct varieties of karei live in the seas around the archipelago, the black karei of Hokkaido is considered a spring specialty. Karei is sometimes referred to as hanami karei (Flower Viewing Flounder) since the best time to catch it is the end of March, corresponding to when the sakura (cherry blossoms) burst into flower. If it is caught at the right time, the flesh is especially thick and tasty, making for a lovely spring meal.
Although it is less fatty than hirame, it has a distinctive light flavor which makes it very popular in sushi this season. It is also often stewed in a sweet and salty sauce. In youshoku style, karei is a popular fish to prepare à la meunière, or simply with lemon and browned butter.
Mebaru (Rockfish) are a highly prized species of fish in Japan that can be recognized by their distinctive bulging and large patchy eyes. There are many varieties of mebaru in Japan. A popular one is the Goldeye Rockfish, named for its bright orangey-red scales, which is typically caught off the shores of Aomori prefecture and the Tohoku region from mid-to-late spring. These fish reach peak fattiness during the spring making it prime time for harvesting. Mebaru are beloved for their pink plump flesh and rich and refined flavor.
Locals in the Tohoku region enjoy eating mebaru simply as sashimi, but if you prefer cooked fish, then it’s recommended to cook the fish whole. A simple recipe to enjoy the flaky texture and umami taste of this fish is to boil it whole in a sweet and salty broth with ginger. For a more western style of preparation, mebaru is thought to be well-suited to carpaccio or being stewed in a tomato-based sauce.
Even if you are a novice when preparing fish yourself, going with the freshest and most seasonal catches will elevate your mealtime. And, be sure to check out restaurant menus for the fish above to enjoy springtime-only dishes!