The more you know, the tastier it is! Complete Information on Sushi Ingredients – Hikarimono Edition
There is a rich variety of sushi ingredients, but among them the type called "hikarimono" is indispensable to nigirizushi. If you know the names and seasons of the fish, as well as their characteristic flavors, when you actually go to sushi restaurants you'll be able to enjoy even more delicious sushi.
What is hikarimono?
Hikarimono is a sushi term referring to slices of fish belly that is served with the shiny silver skin still attached. Some of the representative fish served that way are kohada (mid-sized konoshiro gizzard shad), aji (horse mackerel), saba (mackerel), kisu (sillago), sayori (Japanese halfbeak), iwashi (pilchard), and sanma (Pacific saury).
Since hikarimono loses freshness very quickly, traditionally it has been preserved using a technique called "sujime" in which the fish is salted, and after a little while lightly washed and pickled in vinegar. Though modern refrigeration techniques have improved and allow us to enjoy the fish as is, many restaurants continue to serve sujime hikarimono in order to erase any fishiness and bring out the flavors as much as possible. Sujime requires some adjusting based on the fish's size and amount of fat, so it's said that if you eat hikarimono, you will understand how talented the chef is.
Kohada (Mid-sized Konoshiro Gizzard Shad)
Kohada is one of the best-known types of hikarimono. The fish itself is small, and it's very difficult to filet. On top of that, since the flavor changes dramatically based on the amount of vinegar and salt used, it's one of the ingredients that represent the restaurant's skill. In Japan, this particular fish changes name as it grows, from shinko (very young konoshiro gizzard shad), to kohada (7-10cm), to nakazumi (around 13cm), and finally to konoshiro (15 cm or above). It's generally eaten after being prepared sujime. The firm texture and simple flavor holds sweetness and umami, and the skin is also soft and delicious. Shinko is in season from July to August, while kohada's season is August to September. Kohada caught in Tokyo Bay is famous for being high quality.
Aji (Horse Mackerel)
While there are many varieties, in Japan, aji refers to maaji (Japanese jack mackerel). The meat is pink and fatty, and as a condiment, either ginger or green onion works better than wasabi, and will be offered with the sushi. Depending on where it's caught, they're known by their brand names, such as Seki aji from Oita and Toki aji from Nagasaki. It's delicious all year round, but it's said that it's most in-season from May to July. Lately, a big variety called shimaaji (striped jack) has been becoming popular as a sushi ingredient.
Saba is a standard hikarimono that can be caught in the seas around Japan all year round, but masaba (chub mackerel), which is caught in very large numbers, is in season in the autumn. Since it loses freshness quickly, it's usually offered after being prepared sujime. The refreshing acidity of the vinegar and the sweetness of the fatty fish is a fantastic combination! It's usually not eaten raw, but in some regions, you can find it that way. The expensive brand from Oita, Seki saba, is famous.
The word "kisu" usually refers to shirogisu (Japanese whiting), which is often used in tempura. It's soft and not very fatty, and despite being a white-fleshed fish, it's categorized as hikarimono. The elegant taste and umami is brought out through sujime or kobujime (in which fish is salted and sandwiched between slices of konbu seaweed overnight). It's delicious all year round, but the season is considered to be summer. Few restaurants offer it as a sushi ingredient, so if you see it, definitely try it!
Sayori (Japanese halfbeak)
Sayori is caught in Tokyo Bay, so it's been used as a sushi ingredient since ancient times, but now it's known as a luxury fish. The transparent flesh and shiny skin is beautiful, and it's characterized by its elegant, simple taste. It used to be often offered as sujime, but lately that's been dying down. It's in season in the spring.
Iwashi usually refers to three types of fish: maiwashi (Japanese pilchard), urume-iwashi (round herring), and katakuchi-iwashi (Japanese anchovy). Usually, maiwashi is used as a sushi ingredient, and it's often eaten raw. The level of freshness greatly influences the flavor. Fresh maiwashi has a nice layer of fat and is packed with umami. It goes well with ginger or green onion as condiments. It's reasonably priced, so it's a standard offering at sushi restaurants. It can be caught all around Japan, and while it's said it's in season in the fall, it's delicious starting in June.
Sanma (Pacific Saury)
Sanma is one of the flavors representative of Japanese autumn. The area of Nemuro in Hokkaido is an especially famous producer. Sanma caught between September and October is an irreplaceable seasonal sushi ingredient. The freshness is very important for sanma. Just like other hikarimono, if it's fresh then it doesn't taste fishy, and the rich umami and sweet fat go well with the sushi vinegar. While you can also eat it prepared sujime, it's often eaten raw with ginger or green onion as condiments. It can also be prepared broiled, so you can enjoy it in various ways!
The next time you go eat sushi, use the knowledge here and enjoy various types of hikarimono!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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