When I visit Tokyo’s legendary Tsukiji market at 11 AM on a Saturday, the frenzy that had kicked off at its daily 2 AM standard was petering out—vendors were propped up smoking or napping against stacks of empty crates, trucks drove past with shovels full of sea creature carcasses, and fish heads the size of small dining tables lay discarded by stainless steel prep counters. Surrounded by all this fish, it seems like a shame to default to salmon and tuna sushi. But what should we actually be ordering instead? I asked Tsukiji’s fishmongers for some guidance.
I spoke to Kazuhiko Wada, president of Kamewa Shoten, one of the 200 or so intermediary companies that act as conduits between the handful of wholesalers and the wider industry, as well as Mina-san, an excitable member of Kamaume, an intermediary found deep in the warmly lit maze of stacked styrofoam and wooden boxes, low hanging poker table-style lights, kanji-emblazoned signs, and impeccably organized chaos of the inner-market.
Both of them told me straight out what we should be eating: “shun no sakana” (fish of the seasons), and made a few suggestions:
The Best Sushi in Summer
Most of summer’s seasonal fish are of the white-fleshed “shirodane” variety, and are fittingly light and refreshing. Because of their subtlety and elegance, they’re regarded by many sushi chefs as the best.
- Shima-aji (striped horse mackerel) may be available year-round in its farmed form, but wild ones are only available in summer.
- Ma-aji, a sub-variety of jack mackerel, with horizontal yellow stripes on the side, is considered one of the best-tasting of the species.
- Mako-garei, a type of flounder indigenous to Japan, often comes served seasoned with salt and a touch of lemon juice, or after being pressed between two sheets of kombu (kombu-jime).
- Other white fish to be on the lookout for during summer are isaki (grunt fish), wild shiro-kisu (whiting), and suzuki (bass)—all softly flavored, with no overpowering fishiness.
On the non-fish front, anago (salt-water eel) is at its prime in summer, and will come broiled until it’s fluffy, and basted with tare, a rich and sweet soy-based sauce. Aori-ika, despite being the chewiest squid, is regarded as the best, thanks to it natural sweetness and umami-richness. Akaebi (red prawns) may look a little aggressive, with their giant bodies lying across your rice ball, but they’re sweet and tender, not sticky like raw prawn can be outside of Japan.
The Best Sushi in Fall
Autumn is the season of shokuyoku (ie. overeating because everything tastes so damn good). A big player in shokuyoku is the category of aozakana (blue fish) and hikkarimono (shiny silver fish), which fatten up at this time of year to spawn their next generation. This variety often scares off sushi novices for being too “fishy,” but elevated autumnal levels of fat take care of this. All the aozakana are usually served with grated fresh ginger and sliced negi (spring onions) rather than wasabi.
- Sardine (iwashi, or ma-iwashi) sushi is a far cry from the dank canned form it’s commonly associated with, and is actually gently flavored and smooth when raw and fresh.
- Sanma (pacific saury), the poster child for autumn food in Japan, is a long, thin silvery fish which gets its name from the kanji symbol for sword.
- Saba or ma-saba (mackerel) is can be eaten raw this time of year, when usually it’s pickled in vinegar to chill out its fishiness.
- Kohada (gizzard shad), which is in the herring and sardine family, often comes in blinged-up plaited arrangements.
- Katsuo (bonito)—or technically, “modori Gatsuo” meaning “returned bonito”—are on their way south to warmer waters and are fattier than their summer selves.
Fish roe are also in season during autumn, and you’ll find sushi topped with glistening orange spheres of ikura (cured salmon roe) and blood-orange sujiko (non-cured salmon roe, still in the sac). Ikura is easy to love, little popping balls of softly-scented oceanic brine. Sujiko, meanwhile, requires a little more beer to wash it down; it’s more like licking a trawler floor than catching a little ocean spray in your mouth.
The Best Sushi for Winter
In winter, many fish continue to pack on the pounds. Eating them means a thin slick of oil on your lips best degreased with junmai sake.
- Buri (yellowtail)—also called kanburi (cold-weather yellowtail)—is soft, sweet, and melty.
- Varieties of snapper: the glorious red madai (red snapper) is regarded as the best, and the googly-eyed kinmedai, which can be eaten all year but are their fattiest during winter, come into season in the winter.
- Nodoguro (black-throated perch) is a pink-skinned skin prized for is fatty and tender white flesh, caught along the Sea of Japan.
- Hirame (flounder) is creamy and delicate. Keep a lookout particularly for engawa, the frilly, fatty part from the edge of the flounder. It’s light but rich and buttery, particularly if it’s torched aburi-style, and ideally, it’ll come with a touch of salt or ponzu.
Winter is a prime time also for non-fish sushi neta. Ankimo, sometimes called “the foie gras of the sea,” is the liver of the anko (monkfish), which has been deveined, steamed, sliced, and served cut into a slab on top of sushi. It’s rich and luxurious. Crab—particularly zuwagani (hairy crab)—is sweet and milky. Both common species of uni— murasaki and bafun—are in their sweet and rich prime during winter. Shirako (fish sperm tubes) are available for the brave, and have a disconcerting creaminess and the viscosity of raw egg.
The Best Sushi in Spring
For spring, things start to lighten up again. Fish in season become fresher and lighter. Katsuo comes around again, this time lean and meaty.
- Sayori (halfbeak), are stunning, prepared so that a strip of their glimmering silver skin runs down the centre of translucent white flesh. They’re a little firm to chew, as the fish are muscley little suckers, but are regarded as one of the best sushi neta.
- Shirasu, baby sardines, have a “puri puri” (plump and popping) mouthfeel this time of year, and frequently come piled as a topping for gunkan-maki (“battleship maki,” the little round rice rolls topped with fish).
- Shirauo (icefish) are small (less than 10cm), slim, ice-clear fish served side by side draped over nigiri.
- Sawara (Spanish mackerel, regarded by many in Japan as the best mackerel) can be eaten as-is or with a hit of blowtorch and touch of salt. Because it’s migratory, you might also see it in winter, in which case it will be called kan-sawara (cold-season sawara), and it will be extra fatty so you should consider yourself lucky.
For the non-fish varieties, there’s hotaru ika (tiny, bite-sized “firefly” squid)—you’ll find these on top of gunkan maki, sometimes served with su-miso (miso mixed with vinegar).
And if all of this is too much to remember? Wada-san says it's totally ok to defer to the chef’s recommendation: “kyou no osusume” (today’s recommendation) or “omakase de” (as you recommend).