Want to know more about your favorite fishy friends? Then you’ve come to the right place.
When people think of the freshest, highest quality sushi-grade fish, the word frozen doesn’t typically come to mind. The vast majority of sushi-grade fish in the United States, however, has indeed been frozen before use. Not only is this commonplace, but it is necessary and required. Fish intended for raw consumption is flash-frozen within hours of being caught. This process kills potentially harmful parasites that may be present in raw fish. While the label “sushi-grade” or “sashimi-grade” is more of a marketing label than an FDA label, the FDA does set forth a recommended “parasite destruction guarantee” for suppliers. This is accomplished by freezing and storing fish below 0 for at least a week. Instead of accepting this simple truth however, many purveyors of sushi claim to use only “fresh” fish, and this has become a selling point in the majority collective mindset of sushi-goers who actually believe they are eating fresh fish that has never been frozen… in the American midwest.
The sushi culture in Japan is very different from the sushi culture in the western world. Sushi bars in Japan do indeed serve fresh raw fish, so fresh sometimes that it actually quivers on the plate. This is due in part to different health standards and sushi being so integral to the culture there.
Never under any circumstance should freshwater fish be consumed raw. Lakes and rivers are far more polluted than the oceans. For this reason, freshwater fish pose a higher risk to consumers, and should always be cooked or salt-cured.
Certain types of ocean fish are more suitable to sushi preparations than others because of fat and oil content. Some fish are more delicious raw than they are cooked, such as tuna. This list is by no means complete, but details the most popular sushi choices in America. With oceans so vast, possibilities are definitely endless.
Tuna – A large portion of this page is dedicated to tuna, and for good reason. First of all, it is the most popular sushi item. And second, all the numerous different varieties, names, and cousins of tuna have surrounded this fish with a slight air of confusion. Basically there are 4 varieties to be concerned with in regards to sushi. The tuna known as maguro in Japanese and served in sushi bars is going to be bluefin, yellowfin, or bigeye.
- Bluefin (northern) – The most expensive, and prized tuna for sashimi. These are the largest tuna, weighing in excess of 500 lbs. The high demand for this variety of tuna has led to soaring prices and a declining population. If we hope to save this species, we need to look for more sustainable alternatives.
- Yellowfin – A better alternative to bluefin as they are more abundant, less expensive and not that different.
- Bigeye – In a similar boat as yellowfin. More sustainable than bluefin, and not noticeably different in flavor.
- Albacore – This is served as shiromaguro or white tuna. Not to be confused with escolar marketed as “super white tuna”, which can cause some gastrointestinal problems if you consume too much.
There are also different grades of tuna depending on the fat content from different cuts of the tuna.
- Akami – This is the leaner cut from the sides and is most abundant in the tuna. This is what you get when you order maguro.
- Toro – The fatty belly section of the tuna
- Chutoro – Medium-grade toro; the fatty section surrouding the lower otoro.
- Otoro – The highest grade of toro; this is the most fatty, delicious, and expensive cut of the tuna.
Other types of tuna that may cause confusion.
- Ahi – A Hawaiin term to refer to both yellowfin and bigeye tuna which are essentially interchangeable.
- Skipjack – A smaller fish belonging to the scombridae family. These are dried and shaved as katsuobushi to make dashi, the ubiquitous Japanese stock. Also known as bonito.
- Amberjack – Although often referred to as tuna, these actually belong to the greater scombridae family. There are three varieties of Amberjack available at sushi bars, all generally under the name “yellowtail”. The three varieties are hamachi, kanpachi, and hiramasa. Kanpachi, although not so common in the US, is the most sustainable option of the three.
- Longtail tuna – this is a true tuna sometimes mislabeled as northern bluefin tuna. Much smaller than the northern bluefin, these tuna are found in Indo-Pacific coastal waters and have been declared “recreational only”.
Salmon – Known as sake in Japanese (same as the drink), this is probably the most popular food fish in the world, and has been rather controversial in recent years. While the matter of wild caught vs farm-raised is actually a complex one that varies from fish to fish, salmon-farming has undergone a lot of scrutiny and for good reason. Salmon farms the world over are notorious for harming the environment and the consumer. Farm-raised salmon are kept in crowded net pens, fed low-quality fish meal as well as antibiotics, and dyed at harvest to give a fishy facade to an unhealthy product. In the case of salmon, wild is always better. Farmed salmon should be avoided. If more and more consumers demand wild salmon, we can affect change. The wild salmon are more expensive but its definitely worth it. The most sustainable salmon fisheries are in Alaska. Another good alternative to farmed salmon is farmed arctic char, a fantastic sustainable sushi choice, that is unfortunately under-utilized. Also rainbow trout makes a great alternative for cooked, smoked, or cured preparations.
Mackerel – This oily, buttery fish is not well-suited to raw preparations due to bacterial concerns so it is cured or marinated for use in sushi. This gives gives mackerel a stronger flavor than other fish. Although the skin is shiny and looks inedible, it is actually delicious and and has similar texture to the meat of the fish. There are three types of mackerel commonly available at sushi bars: saba, sawara (Spanish mackerel), and aji (horse mackerel or saurel). Vinegar-marinated mackerel is known as shime-saba. Atlantic mackerel is the most sustainable variety.
Red snapper – The fish served at sushi bars known as tai can be a bit of a conundrum. Snapper is a bit of a generic term that can refer to many different species of fish. True tai is really only popular in Japan and only beginning to gain popularity in the United States. Most snapper fisheries also have low stock and questionable management. The worst thing about red snapper served in many U.S. sushi joints is that it is actually “sushi-grade tilapia”. Yes, you heard me right. This fish is white with a red stripe and is devoid of taste or any redeeming quality. Unless you know and trust your sushi chef or sources, tai is best avoided.
Shrimp – Known as ebi in the sushi world, shrimp are the most popular seafood in the United States. Shrimp and spot prawns are cooked and served as nigiri, or raw as ama ebi. Long shrimp that are prepared using bamboo skewers and used for shrimp tempura are known as nobashi ebi. Imported farmed shrimp from Asia should be avoided at all costs. The fisheries are poorly managed and the product is unclean. U.S. farmed shrimp and wild British Columbia spot prawns are the most sustainable and healthiest options.
Eel – There are two types of eel that are encountered in sushi bars: unagi, (freshwater eel), and anago (saltwater eel). Anago is usually described as conger eel at most sushi bars, which is a specific variety of eel, but anago actually refers to any kind of marine eel. More research needs to be done about the anago fishery, but as the demand is much lower than unagi, this is a more ecologically-minded choice. Unagi is the more popualar type of eel, which is unfortunate because it is in an uncomfortable position in regards to sustainability. Many Americans enjoy unagi without knowing how bad of a choice it is from an ecological stand-point. Wild populations are in severe decline, and its southeast Asian fisheries are very poorly managed. Eel should be avoided by rainbow trout soldiers, but if you need to get your eel-fix, opt for anago where possible.
Octopus – The unmistakable tentacles of the greater octopus, or tako, is a popular seafood choice throughout the world. Most tako comes pre-cooked and marinated from Japan, who imported octopus from fisheries all over the world. Octopus are well-traveled, and hard to track. Octopus are a safe choice as sushi because they are short-lived, quick to re-produce, and re-produce in great amounts. The import-export cycle of octopus is a little sketchy, so octopus not imported from Japan is the best choice. Octopi are also harvested as baby for use in Mediterranean cuisine and Japanese cuisine, often marinated and seen in salads.
Squid – Known as ika at the sushi bar, squid has a similar texture to octopus with a milder flavor. One thing to look out for, however, is that most less reputable sushi establishments are selling the cheaper cuttlefish as ika. This is a similar species that comes from a Vietnamese fishery that not much is known about. It’s always best to approach mystery with caution. The 3 main types of true squid are long-fin, short-fin and jumbo squid. Although nearly impossible to distinguish which one is being served, the best option is east coast long-fin.
Clams – There are various types of clams available at sushi bars. Hokkigai, or surf clams are one of the more common options, but probably the least sustainable. Not much information is known about the stocks of surf clams, but wild Canadian hokkigai are harvested using a hydraulic dredge which is harmful to the ocean floors. Another type of clam you may find are called mirugai or geoduck clams. These bivalves are very large, at weights upwards of 10 pounds. Farmed geoduck are a more sustainable option than similar seafood like surf clams or conch. Scallops and farmed abalone (sea snails) are also better alternatives to surf clams.
Scallops – While sea scallops are undeniably rich and succulent, they are not farmed or caught with environmentally friendly methods. The most sustainable type of scallop are the small bay scallops which sushi chefs only used cooked in maki. Enjoy the delicate hotategai in moderation.
Crab – There are many varieties of crab (kani), and the most commonly found a sushi bar is an impostor. Imitation crab meat made from surimi, known as kanikama, is found in many types of makizushi. Most people think it is a cheaper, and more sustainable alternative to real crab, but this is no longer the case. The fisheries that produce surimi are poorly managed and overfished. Some fleets are also fishing in areas that should be off-limits. The most commonly found type of real crab at sushi bars is the blue crab, seen as soft shell crab in spider rolls. The other varieties are king crab, snow (queen) crab, dungeness crab, and stone crab. Of these, the most sustainable option is dungeness, but it is not often found on sushi menus.