Japan is one of the top consumers of seafood in the world. In 2019, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported Japan consumed 46.06kg per capita, ranking 5th in the world. The array of seasonal seafood, many ways of eating and the nation’s love for seafood are unparalleled. It makes Japan one of the most exciting countries in the world to experience the finest seafood. So, what makes Japan’s seafood so popular and delicious?
Why is Japan famous for Seafood?
Japan’s Geographical Location
Japan is a maritime nation, formed by a series of volcanoes, making it one of the most ideal locations in the world to consume delicious seafood. Firstly, the various mountain ranges running through the spine of Japan see over 1500mm of rainfall a year. The result is a large network of rivers connecting to the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Sea of Japan to the west. These mineral-rich rivers provide the perfect environment for freshwater fish such as ayu (sweetfish).
Secondly, the surrounding oceans also have many different currents running through them - Tsushima, Chishima, Kuroshio, Liman, Soya and Oyashio. This means most of the same saltwater fish can be found in abundance throughout the country each season.
The northern island, Hokkaido, sees some of the finest seafood in the country and the world. The plankton-rich Oyashio Current flowing through the east coast of Hokkaido helps create nutritional, fatty and delicious seafood. On top of this, the cold climate means many sea creatures have additional layers of fat, making them even tastier!
History of Seafood in Japan
Japan’s consumption of seafood dates back to the Jomon Period, approximately 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. During this period, Japanese people were under the strong influence of Buddhism and were unwilling to kill warm-blooded animals. In addition, the volcanic activity and difficult mountain terrains made it difficult to grow other foods. It meant that food from the sea was the next most viable option. Yet, for people inland and away from the network of rivers and coastline, it was difficult to afford seafood due to its scarcity. Furthermore, fish is perishable so it made it even more difficult to find its way inland. This long history of seafood meant that it became a staple part of Washoku or Japanese cuisine.
It wasn’t until a few hundred years ago that it became more consumed by the nation. Seafood became more accessible due to technological advancements and the ways of preparation. Preservation through fermentation, aging and drying increased the seafood’s longevity creating innovative and delicious ways to eat. Now, seafood is one of the core ingredients within Japanese cuisine and is of great importance in Japan’s everyday life and diet.
How is Seafood used in Japan?
Seafood plays a pivotal role in Japanese cuisine but just how is it consumed? These are just some of the ways that Japanese people enjoy seafood in Japan.
Sushi is one of Japan’s most iconic dishes that celebrate both seafood and rice. It is commonly eaten on special occasions, such as celebrations. The most common form of sushi is nigiri, where a ball of slightly vinegared rice is topped with a slice of seafood and paired with soy sauce and wasabi. In many kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurants the sushi comes separately from the soy sauce and wasabi. However, at more high-end restaurants, the sushi chef will place a small knob of wasabi between the fish and rice, then brush a layer of soy sauce (or their specially made sauce) on top. Common seafood toppings include salmon and tuna. More unique toppings include sea urchin and octopus, which are very common in Japan.
There are many different types of sushi such as maki sushi and chirashizushi. The list goes on so let us know if you want us to write another piece on them!
Sashimi is thin slices of raw fish and other kinds of seafood that are dipped in soy sauce and sometimes with wasabi. Unlike sushi, it does not come with rice. Instead, you can enjoy the beautiful sweetness and umami flavor of the seafood, which is often accompanied by shredded daikon (horseradish) and shiso leaves, adding a wonderful herbaceous aroma. Salmon and tuna are popular choices for sashimi but scallop and squid are also common. Sashimi is typically eaten in izakayas (Japanese-style restaurants) or commonly found in supermarkets to take home.
Kaisendon (translated to seafood rice bowl) is one of the most delicious ways to enjoy Japan’s seafood. Just as its name suggests, a beautiful array of raw seafood is laid on a fluffy bowl of white rice, which is sometimes vinegar flavored. In many restaurants, there are set kaisendon but in some restaurants, you can pick and choose which seafood you would like. You can pour a mixture of soy sauce and wasabi on top or dip in each piece of seafood as you eat. Ikura (salmon roe), shrimp, salmon and tuna are commonly found in kaisendon.
Yaki-zakana (grilled fish) is the most common way of eating seafood in everyday life in Japan. Fish is grilled over charcoal until mouth-wateringly tender and juicy, then served with soy sauce and often grated daikon. At restaurants and izakayas, this type of cooking may seem simple but is technically very difficult to get the right char and temperature of cooking. In everyday Japanese life, grilled fish is often eaten for breakfast and dinner alongside rice, miso soup and other accompaniments. You’ll even find a special fish grill in many Japanese homes!
Japan is known for its four distinct seasons, each bringing a new scenery but also different types of food. Seafood can be enjoyed seasonally when they are at its most delicious, most nutritious and at its cheapest!
Some popular fish in each season are:
Winter (December - February) - Scallops, horsehair crab, yellowtail, octopus
Spring (March - May) - Japanese whiting, amberjack, bonito
Summer (June - August) - Mackerel, eel, Japanese flying squid, sea urchin, conger
Autumn (September - November) - Oysters, sanma (Pacific saury), ayu
No matter the season, you can find delicious seafood all throughout Japan, used in different ways from raw to grilled over charcoal. It makes seafood one of the most exciting ingredients in Japan and is not hard to see why it is celebrated so widely.