What is Tai (Sea Bream)?
Tai describes the family of the sea-breams in Japanese. In the culinary context, it often refers to the red seabream, which in Japan is called madai (マダイ) and literally means “true seabream“.
With the rise of modern fishing, the number of sea bream with tai in their name has grown, with more than 140 species belonging to the sea bream family. Also some species of fish, which are not related to the sea bream, have tai in their name. According to Katsumi Suzuki (鈴木克美), professor at Tokai University of Ichthyology, 235 species have the term tai in their name.
Tai as Ingredient for Sushi or Sashimi
Tai is very popular ingredient in Japan and carries the nickname “king of the hundred fishes“ (hyaku sakana no ō, 百魚の王). For the preparation of sushi or sashimi madai is most often used and preferred. Apart from madai, many other types of tai are tasty and common as an ingredient.
Tai (sea bream) is superior among whitefish. If you compare delicious tai and delicious hirame (flounder), then the tai wins hands down.
- Jiro Ono, Sushi Chef (Sukiyabashi Jiro) [Satomi, 2016]
The famous sushi chef Jiro Ono notes that he considers tai from aquaculture to be inferior and therefore does not serve tai to his customers. This is because wild high-quality tai has become rare and exceptionally expensive. [Satomi, 2016]
The bright white flesh is firm but still tender, the taste is slightly mineral, refreshing and accompanied by sweetish aromas. Fresh meat in particular can be somewhat watery, the moisture can be reduced by resting the meat for a few hours under cooling. In turn, the mineral taste loses some of its presence and the texture becomes softer. Between the meat and the skin lies a distinctive layer of fat. This subcutaneous fat is tasty and is appreciated for different preparation methods. The skin may be heated either by pouring boiling water over it (matsugawa tsukuri, 松皮作り) or with the help of a torch (aburi, 炙り). When heated, the subcutaneous fat layer begins to melt and releases additional flavors that harmonize beautifully with the taste of the raw meat.
Wild Capture vs. Aquaculture
Wild caught tai differ to those from Auqakultur. Not only the limited freedom of movement and the usual high stocking density affect the condition of the fish, but also their food and climatic conditions to which they are exposed during farming.
Cultured tai are generally less firm in meat and have a higher fat content than wild specimens. These differences are not to be considered as basic quality characteristics, but rather represent a personal preference in taste.
Matsugawazukuri is a preparation method that is mainly used for tai, isagi and bonito. The meaning of matsugawazukuri can be translated as “producing the pine bark”. After removing the scales from the fish, a characteristic pattern can be seen on the skin. When heated, this pattern becomes even more prominent and is visibly reminiscent of the bark of a Japanese pine.
In contrast to blanching (buranchingu, ブランチング) or short frying (tataki, たたき), the matsugawa tsukuri method only heats the skin of the meat. For this purpose, the fish filet is placed either on a grid or a slanted kitchen board, covered with a thin cloth and then, for two to three seconds, doused with boiling water. The sudden heat causes the skin to contract and bend. To avoid cooking the raw meat, the filet is then immediately quenched in ice water.
Depending on the region, different names exist for the technique, the most common being matsugawa-zukuri, shōhi-zukuri (松皮造り), kawashimo-zukuri (皮霜造り), and yubiki (湯引き).
A similar effect can also be achieved by flame-torching (aburi). Compared to the matsugawa tsukuri method, the skin becomes crispier, gets additional flavors from the burning process and stays slightly warm without cooking the underlying raw meat.
The skin can be prepared separately from the meat. Dried or roasted, it makes a tasty appetizer or side dish that goes well with Japanese alcohol (sake, 酒).
Kobujime 昆布締め, 昆布〆
The kobujime (こぶじめ) method originally comes from the Toyama prefecture. In this region, Japanese kelp or seaweed (konbu, こんぶ) has always enjoyed a high status in the regional cuisine. Before the appearance of refrigerators, one of the methods of preserving fish was kobujime, which made it possible to transport the fish further into the inland.
The preservation by kobujime is not limited to tai, but is also suitable for many other fish species, but tai is especially suitable in terms of taste. To prepare tai no kobujime, the meat is sprinkled with salt and then wrapped in an airtight foil between slices of konbu. After up to one day under refrigeration, the meat has noticeably lost water, gained flavor and the full-bodied umami taste of combu has been transferred to the meat. Afterwards the meat can be cut for the preparation of sashimi or sushi.
Tai is fished all year round. In addition, the number of fish from aquaculture predominates, which are available all year round. The spawning time varies depending on the sea area and species. For wild madai from Japan the time between December and April can be considered the best season.
Depending on the season tai gets a byname in Japan. Specimens that have visibly gained fat during the spawning season are called sakura tai (桜鯛). Sakura is the Japanese cherry blossom in spring, at this time of year, spawning of tai is imminent and the fish have gained fat. An emaciated tai after the spawning-season is mockingly called mugiwara tai (麦わら鯛). Mugiwara is the Japanese name for straw and is to be understood as an analogy to the emaciated and therefore slim body.
Tai in Japan
The history of eating tai dates back to ancient times. Bones of sea bream were found about 5,000 years ago in the archaeological sites of the Jomon culture [Kusaka et al., 2010]. Tai in Japan is considered a symbol of good luck, is an essential part of traditional celebrations and a popular ingredient that is eaten with family and friends on New Year's Day.
In Japan, tai is valued as a valuable ingredient, so over time some phrases related to Tai have become part of everyday life. For example, they say “to catch a tai with a shrimp”, as a metaphor for making a big profit with a small amount of money (ebi de tai o tsuru, 海老で鯛を釣る).
Characteristics & Ecology of Tai (Sea Bream)
Traditionally, three types of tai are distinguished in Japan (tai sanju, 鯛三種):
- Red to pink-colored madai
- Yellowish chidai and kidai
- Black silvery kurodai and hedai
The group of “red to pink-colored“ include the red seabream (madai). The “yellowish group“ refers to Crimson seabream (chidai) and Yellowback seabream (kidai). Within the “Black silvery group”, Blackhead seabream (kurodai) and Silver seabream (hedai) can be included.
The family of the sea breams (tai-ka, タイ科) belongs to the group of the perch-relatives, that consists of nearly 40 genera with more than 150 species. Some species of tai can reach an age of over 20 years. Due to the fact that the name tai includes some unrelated fish, a description of the characteristics and their natural environment is not possible in a comprehensive way.
There are some popular food-fish, who don't belong to the family of the sea-breams, whose Japanese name contains the designation Tai, however, as for example the barred knifejaw (ishidai, イシダイ), the splendid alfonsino (kinmedai, キンメダイ) and the john dory (matōdai, マトウダイ). Not related, but considered to belong to the culinary group, the striped beakfish (ishidai, イシダイ), which is also appreciated by chefs.
The red snapper, a common substitute for madai in the U.S. (fuedai, フエダイ) is suitable for the preparation of sushi or sashimi. Compared to the red seabream (madai), which is imported in small quantities, it has a less intense taste.
A part of the sea bream are so-called proterogyne hermaphrodites. Most proterogynous fish begin their life as a female and change their sex to male in the course of time.
Tai is of medium economic importance for Japanese fisheries. In 2018, tai accounted for less than 1% of total catches and 25% of total production from aquaculture. Most of the wild catches are landed in the prefectures of Nagasaki, Fukuoka and Ehime. The largest centers of breeding tai in aquaculture are located in Ehime and Kumamoto Prefectures.
Video about Tai
Species of Tai
The following species are regarded as authentic. Either historically, according to the area of distribution or according to the common practice in today's gastronomy:
Common Names, Scientific Name
cape moreton sea bream, crimson seabream, deepsea snapper
goldlined seabream, tarwhine
black porgy, blackhead seabream
Japanese seabream, madai, red porgy
The following species can be considered subsitutes. Either on the basis of genetic relationship or because they are similar in taste or appearance:
Common Names, Scientific Name
Blackspot seabream, red seabream
pink ear emperor, pink ear emperor, star snapper
creek red bream, dog bream, mangrove jack
emperor red snapper, emperor snapper, government bream
big-mouth nannygai, humphead snapper, large-mouthed nannygai
common dentex, dentex, porgy
References & Further Reading
- [Fujiwara, 2020]: 昌髙藤原. ぼうずコンニャクの市場魚貝類図鑑 (engl. Bozu Konyaku's Market Fish and Shellfish Book). Bozu Konnyaku Co., Ltd., Tokyo ぼうずコンニャク株式会社東京, zukan-bouz.com. 2020. https://www.zukan-bouz.com/. Retrieved online on December 27, 2021.
- [Kusaka et al., 2010]: Soichiro Kusaka, Fujio Hyodo, Takakazu Yumoto, Masato Nakatsukasa. Carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis on the diet of Jomon populations from two coastal regions of Japan. Journal of Archaeological Science. Source.Volume 37 (8). Elsevier, Amsterdam. 2010.
- [Satomi, 2016]: Shinzo Satomi. Sukiyabashi Jiro. Vertical Inc., New York. 2016.