What is Saba サバ 【鯖】?
Traditionally, the term refers to the chub mackerel which is referred to in Japanese as masaba (マサバ). In the culinary context, the term saba includes not only chub mackerel but also its relatives such as the Australian mackerel and Atlantic mackerel.
Saba for Sushi and Sashimi
Nearly 100 percent of the total catch comes from wild stocks and is therefore a potential carrier of parasites harmful to humans. Therefore saba must be frozen sufficiently for preparation as Sushi or Sashimi. Brining and pickling according to the sujime method can partially reduce parasite infestation, but not to sufficiently eliminate the risk of infection. The sujime method serves much more to maintain freshness, reduce the dominant taste and the fishlike odour. The meat treated in this way is called shime saba and is the most common way to prepare saba for sushi or sashimi.
Shime saba (シメサバ)
At sushi restaurants in Tokyo, chefs normally leave the inside semi-raw, but I pickle it all the way through, much like kizushi (pickled sushi) from Kansai. Jiro Ono in Sushi Chef: Sukiyabashi Jiro (Satomi, 2016)
Shime saba is very tasty and its aromas range from a refreshing acidity, a slightly sweetish fish taste to salt and minerals. The texture of the meat is pleasantly soft and fluffy, so that it falls apart easily on the tongue. Chopped spring onions, grated fresh ginger or grated winter radish (daikon) are very suitable as a garnish or topping.
The best season for japanese chub mackerel (jap. masaba) starts in September and ends at spawning time in March, at this time masaba is particularly rich in fat and full-bodied in taste. The blue mackerel (jap. goma saba) spawns at different times depending on the population, so that tasty specimens can be found all year round. The spawning season of Atlantic mackerel (jap. taiseiyou saba) depends on the habitat of the population, but is generally between spring and summer, so the time when in which particularly tasty specimens can be caught is thus between autumn and early spring.
In other words: Tasty saba sushi and sashimi can be enjoyed in good quality all year round thanks to international trade flows, it only depends on the region where the mackerel was caught. In Japan there is also the possibility to buy saba from smaller regional aquacultures throughout the year.
Mackerel caught between October and November are called “autumn mackerel” in Japan (jap. aki saba, 秋サバ). Caught between December and February, mackerel are called “winter or cold mackerel” (Jap. samu saba, 寒サバ).
The meat of mackerel contains high amounts of histidine, a semi-essential amino acid. This is broken down by microbiological or enzymatic processes within a short time after the death of the mackerel and histamine is formed. Sufficient cooling slows down the process, insufficient cooling after the catch leads to a strong increase in bacteria and thus to an increased histamine formation. The longer the spoilage of dark meat progresses, the higher the concentration of histamine. Histamine is toxic in higher concentrations, and even smaller amounts can cause symptoms of scombroid poisoning in humans.
Pickling and soaking in a salt and vinegar solution (sujime method) inhibits or slows down the increase in histamine concentration by denaturing the bacteria responsible for histidine decarboxylase. The acidic environment of the marinade inhibits the spread of the bacteria responsible for histidine decarboxylase. In addition, the low pH ensures that the proteins are denatured and the methylamine responsible for the fish taste is reduced. To ensure that ready-prepared saba sushi or sashimi can be consumed safely, it is important to use correctly treated mackerel that is as fresh as possible.
Saba in Japan
Archealogical excavations from the Jomon period prove that saba has been used as a food fish in Japan since ancient times. The name saba was already used in early Japan, the meaning of which translated is "small tooth" and refers to the little teeth in the mouth of the mackerel.
Regional trade names
Kinka saba 金華さば
Kinka saba is a large seasonal mackerel which is caught off the coast of the mountain Kinka and landed in the port of Ishinomaki. Only large and accordingly fat-rich specimens, caught at a fixed time and carefully selected, are given the designation kinka mackerel.
Seki saba 関さば
Mackerels caught in the Strait of Hoyo, where Bungo Channel is the narrowest, are called seki saba. Since seki mackerels are not caught with nets but with lines, the fish are less prone to injuries and stress.
Matsuwa saba 松輪さば
Matsuwa Saba is a regional brand name for mackerel caught in Ena Bay (jap. 江奈湾) near Matsuwa. The village of Matsuwa is located south of Yokohama and is part of the city of Miura in Kanagawa Prefecture. Located at the southern tip of the Miura Peninsula, near the Tsurugisaki Lighthouse (jap. 剱埼灯台), is the Matsuwa branch of the Miura Fisheries Association. From here, matsuwa saba is shipped all over Japan.
Matsuwa saba are known for being killed just before shipment or sale to ensure maximum freshness. The mackerel caught with single lines in this area are known as the "golden mackerel of Matsuwa" because of their meaty and fatty nature and are highly prized as the highest quality mackerel. The meat has a cherry red color due to the fat content and is visibly different from ordinary mackerel.
Shun saba 旬さば, Toki saba 時さば
Mackerel caught in the Goto region off Nagasaki and off the island of Tsushima, during the high season, are called toki or shun saba. Both words stand in Japanese for "the time of something" or season.
Saba tastes most delicious in autumn because they have a lot of fat at this time. As with the autumn eggplants, a Japanese proverb says: "Autumn mackerel should not be eaten by your bride". There are several interpretations and theories about the meaning of the proverb in Japan. These range from the idea that the mackerel could affect the health (of a future mother), to the fact that this advice comes from a jealous mother-in-law, to the fact that the high fat content could have a negative effect on the bride's figure.
Characteristics & Ecology
Mackerels are active and fast fish that are constantly on the move. They lack the swim bladder, which is characteristic for many fish and would allow them to swim in the water. In return, they are able to change the depth of the water quickly and easily, which makes it difficult for other predators to hunt them. As schooling fish they prefer coastal waters near the shelf edge with a depth of up to 200 meters. Mackerels feed mainly on plankton and fish larvae.
Masaba (Pacific chub mackerel)
The chub mackerel (jap. masaba) is native to the warm and temperate zones of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It is particularly common in the Japanese Sea and along the coasts of the Japanese archipelago.
Beside masaba it is also frequently called hon saba. Occasionally masaba is also called hirasaba, which translated means "flat mackerel" and serves as distinction to the blue mackerel, since its body is more round.
Gomasaba (blue mackerel)
The blue mackerel is native to the tropical and subtropical waters of the Pacific Ocean. Its range extends from Japan to New Zealand, in smaller quantities it can also be found off the coasts of the eastern Pacific and in the Indo-Pacific.
It carries the Japanese name gomasaba which translated means "sesame mackerel". The name comes from the fact that the blue mackerel, unlike the chub mackerel, has many small dark spots on the lower body, which optically remind of black sesame.
Taiseiyousaba (Atlantic Mackerel)
The populations of the Atlantic mackerel, in the Japanese taiseiyousaba, have its natural habitat in the coast-waters of the North Atlantic, in the North sea, the Mediterranean and in the black sea.
As a substitute for the making of masaba sushi or sashimi the Atlantic mackerel is very well suited. Its taste and fat content is comparable to that of japanese mackerel.
Overview of the most important types of saba
|Japanese name||Common name||Economic significance|
|Masaba, honsaba, hirasaba
マサバ, ホンサバ, 平サバ
|Atlantic chub mackerel
Mackerel is a very popular food fish and therefore of great economic importance. They are among the most fatty fish and are rich in valuable omega-3 fatty acids. Mackerel are mainly fished with trawls and purse seines, small quantities are caught annually with gill nets and lines. According to IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), "real mackerels" (Tribus Scombrini) are not considered endangered.
In 2018, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), chub mackerel accounted for the largest share of the catch of fish of the genus Scomber (50 %), followed by Atlantic mackerel (33 %), whose three largest catching nations were Japan, China and Russia. The production share from aquaculture of 250 tons from South Korean production was remarkably low (0.01 %).