Saba Sushi
Mackerel

saba sushi

What is Saba サバ 【鯖】?

Saba is a general term for a group of fishes, belonging to the order mackerels. The predominant part of the fishes with saba in their name belongs to the tribe of "true mackerels".

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.

Best Season

Two Japanese mackerel (jap. masaba) lie chilled on ice on a bed of cypress branches.
Makrelen die zur richtigen Jahreszeit gefangen werden, sind reich an fett und eignen sich hervorragend zur Zubereitung von Sushi oder Sashimi.

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).

NameJanFebMarAprMayJunJulAugSepOctNovDec
Atlantic mackerel
Taiseiyousaba
Chub mackerel
Masaba
Blue mackerel
Gomasaba

Absolute freshness

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

A map showing the origin of Japanese regional brands of mackerel (saba) that where wild caught.
Overview of the regions from which the regional wild caught mackerel (saba) brands originate.
A map showing the origin of Japanese regional brands of mackerel (saba) that where farmed.
Overview of the regions from which the regional farmed mackerel (saba) brands originate.

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 Trivia

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 nameCommon nameEconomic significance
Gomasaba
ゴマサバ
Blue mackerel
Scomber australasicus
high
Masaba, honsaba, hirasaba
マサバ, ホンサバ, 平サバ
Chub mackerel
Scomber japonicus
high
Taiseiyousaba
タイセイヨウサバ
Atlantic mackerel
Scomber scombrus
high
Taiseiyoumasaba
タイセイヨウマサバ
Atlantic chub mackerel
Scomber colias
medium
Nijousaba
ニジョウサバ
Double-lined mackerel
Grammatorcynus bilineatus
low

Economy

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.

Diagram showing the distribution of mackerel (saba group) on the global market from 1950-2018
The share of mackerel from aquaculture is marginal compared to the total amount.

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 %).

  1. By including the species Grammatorcynus bilineatus, in Japanese called Nijousaba (ニジョウサバ), the restriction to the tribe of "real mackerels" (lat. Scombrini) is not applicable.
  2. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Commission require that all potentially parasitic fish intended for raw consumption be stored at an ambient temperature of -20°C (-4°F) or below for at least 7 days or frozen at -35°C (-31°F) or below until the meat has completely solidified and then stored for 15 hours (FDA 2020, Regulation (ec) No 853/2004). A common method used in the fishing industry today is the Individual Quick Freezing method (IQF).
  3. "Blue Mackerel are serial spawners, spawning multiple times over a prolonged spawning season [...] Blue mackerel S. australasicus stocks spawn between spring andautumn off southern Australia and between winter and spring offeastern Australia. " (Rogers et al., 2009)
  4. Nagasaki Prefecture is currently the most important region for cultivated saba in Kyushu. The herb mackerel from Nagasaki (jap. Nagasaki hābu saba, 長崎ハーブ鯖) is a specialty whose food is enriched with herbs and therefore has a unique taste. The Karatsu-Q-mackerel (karatsu q saba, 唐津Qサバ) is a fully farmed mackerel developed through joint research by Karatsu City and Kyushu University.
  5. Already the intake of about 100 mg histamine is sufficient to trigger a medium scombroid poisoning. The poisoning is characterized by symptoms such as reddening of the skin, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, headaches, diarrhea, shortness of breath and drop in blood pressure. (Sumner et al., 2004)
  6. "Salting of fish in a saturated brine solution resulted in a constant histamine content in mackerel during drying." (Azudin & Saari, 1990)
  7. Methylamine and other amines are formed during the spoilage of fish and are responsible for the typical fish smell and taste (see McMurry, 1996). The fresher the mackerel meat was before preservation, the less pronounced the characteristic smell and taste.
  8. The character for "something small" is 小 and can be read in Japanese Kun reading as sa (さ). The character 歯 stands for "tooth" and can be read in Kun as ha (は), which together with sa converts to ba (rendoaku emphasis).
  9. In Japanese: Aki saba wa yome ni kuwa su na (秋鯖は嫁に喰わすな). The character 嫁 can stand for both bride and daughter-in-law.

Video

© 銀座渡利. 【鮨】しめ鯖【握り方】と【バッテラ(押し寿司)】の作り方. 2020-08-03, youTube.com

Warnings

As a general rule, do not eat ingredients that are not explicitly labeled for raw consumption.

The naturally have high levels of enzymes causes the meat to let it rot quickly. It is therefore essential to maintain an appropriate cold chain until prompt processing. Histamine is not destroyed by normal cooking temperatures, so even properly cooked fish can still result in poisoning.

References & further reading

  • [Azudin & Saari]: Mohd. Nasir Azudin, Nazamid Saari. Histamine Content In Fermented And Cured Fish Products in Malaysia, Papers Presented at the Seventh Session of the Indo-Pacific Fishery Commission Working Party on Fish Technology and Marketing: Bangkok, Thailand, 19-22 April 1988. Indo-Pacific Fishery Commission. Working Party on Fish Technology and Marketing, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome. 1990
  • [EP, 2004]: The European Parliament And The Council Of The European Union. Regulation (ec) No 853/2004 Of The European Parliament And Of The Council of 29 April 2004, Laying down specific hygiene rules for on the hygiene of foodstuffs, The European Parliament And The Council Of The European Union. The Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg. 2004. Retrieved online on: December 26, 2020
  • [FDA, 2020]: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Fish and Fishery Products Hazards and Controls Guidance. 2020
  • [McMurry, 1996]: John McMurry. Organic Chemistry. Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, Pacific Grove. 1996
  • [Rogers et al., 2009]: Paul J- Rogers, Timothy Mark Ward, Lachlan Mcleay, Michael Lowry. Reproductive biology of blue mackerel, Scomber australasicus, off southern and eastern Australia: Suitability of the Daily Egg Production Method for stock assessment. Marine and Freshwater Research Vol. 60 (2). CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne. 2009
  • [Satomi, 2016]: Shinzo Satomi. Sukiyabashi Jiro. Vertical Inc., New York. 2016
  • [Sumner et al., 2004]: John Louis Sumner, Thomas Ross, Lahsen Ababouch. Application of Risk Assessment in the Fish Industry. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome. 2004
  • [Toizumi, 2007]: Toizumi Takeji (樋泉 岳二), Tamura Koichi (田村 晃一), Kinoshita Masashi (木下 正史), Kōno Machiro (河野 眞知郎), Horiuchi Hideki (堀内 秀樹). Food Archeology - Living Archeology Series (食べ物の考古学 暮らしの考古学シリーズ). Gakusei-sha shinsho, Tōkyō (学生社新書, 東京). 2007

Information

Illustration

Drawn illustration for  saba

Common names

mackerel

Japanese names

  • saba (サバ)

Scientific name

Selectio ex Scombrinae

Family

Mackerels, tunas and bonitos

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