The love of seafood has deep roots in Japan, and it can be interesting to trace these back in history. Where fish are concerned, long before tuna was king, Japanese sought out tai.

Although there are more than 200 species of fish that take the name tai in Japan, most of which belong to the sea bream family, only one bears the name madai, meaning “true tai.”

This is the red sea bream (Pagrus major), historically the most prized fish in the country. The tai family in general and the madai in particular have been eaten in Japan for at least 5,000 years, as archaeological excavations of prehistoric sites have revealed.

One clue to how popular the tai family of fish has been in Japan is the kanji for tai, 鯛. The component on the left side of the character means “fish,” while that on the right side indicates “around,” meaning that it was available all around the country.

White fish like the sea bream were considered to have a refined taste, and were traditionally preferred over oily fish like tuna, mackerel and salmon up until the last 100 years or so.

The madai is the most popular of all the tai year round, but demand reaches a peak during this time of the year, when it takes on another name, sakuradai meaning “cherry blossom tai.” This special name is a hint for would-be diners: in spring, when the cherry blossoms bloom, madai make their way to shallow waters in order to spawn, making them especially easy to catch.

But Japan’s connection to the madai goes deeper still. The word madai also sounds like medetai, which points to all things festive, auspicious, joyous and so on, recommending it to the pun-loving people of the Edo Period (1603-1868) for serving at festive occasions of all kinds.

Although spring madai remains highly prized, it is actually tastier in late winter, when the fish has fattened up in preparation for spawning.

At New Year’s it is common to simply grill the whole fish as-is, but eating it raw as sashimi is ideal during this time as well.

While spring madai is somewhat slimmed down, it is still packed with flavor, so the ideal way to enjoy it is as taimeshi, meaning cooked with rice. Taimeshi is most famously known as a specialty of Ehime Prefecture, where there are several noted variations on the theme of madai combined with rice.

My recipe for taimeshi utilizes precut pieces of madai instead of the whole fish that’s traditionally used. The fish is lightly salted and allowed to rest in the refrigerator for at least a few hours — an extra step that really brings out the umami of the fish.

It takes some time for this dish to come together, but you’ll find the results to be well worth it. If madai is hard to find, this can also be made with other kinds of sea bream.

Recipe: Taimeshi red sea bream on rice

Serves 4

  • 200 g madai (red sea bream) or other tai (sea bream), about 2 pieces
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 300 g uncooked white rice (2 rice-cooker cups)
  • 1 20-cm-long piece of dried konbu seaweed
  • 300 ml water
  • 3 tablespoons sake
  • 1 tablespoon mirin (cooking sake)
  • 1 ½ tablespoons usukuchi (light colored) soy sauce,
    1 tablespoon dark soy sauce plus ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 small bunch mitsuba herb, roughly chopped

Preparations begin at least a few hours ahead of the cooking time, ideally up to a day in advance. Begin by sprinkling the fish with salt on both sides in order to bring out its natural umami flavor. Wrap the fish loosely in two layers of paper towel and refrigerate until it is time to cook.

Rinse the rice in several changes of water. Completely submerge it in water and soak for 30 minutes. Drain into a fine-mesh colander, and let it sit for another 15 to 30 minutes.

To make the dashi (stock): Soak the konbu seaweed in 300 ml of water for at least one hour. Then, set the konbu and water over medium heat until the water begins to bubble but is not yet at a full boil.

Turn the heat off and remove the konbu seaweed. Leave out to cool.

Mix the dashi, sake, mirin and soy sauce together.

Next, heat up a fish grill, and grill the fish for a couple of minutes on each side until the surface is lightly charred. Note that there is no need to cook the fish through, as it will be fully cooked later. Take the fish off the grill and leave it out to cool.

If you’re using a traditional Japanese donabe (earthenware pot), put the combined dashi and rice into the pot and stir gently.

Put the fish on top of the rice, and place the pot over medium heat until it comes to a boil. Then turn the heat down very low, and cook for 10 minutes without stirring.

After 10 minutes, raise the heat to high for just 15 seconds, until you hear a crackling sound coming from the pot. Then, turn off the heat, and let the pot sit for 10 to 15 minutes to cool.

If you’re using a rice cooker: Put the combined dashi and rice into the pot and stir gently, then put the fish on top of the rice. Cook using the regular setting for rice.

Finally, flake the fish and remove the skin and bones. Gently mix the fish into the rice. Fold in the chopped mitsuba herb and serve at a celebration, or just to enjoy on a Saturday night.

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