Tuna might grab the headlines and dominate menus in sushi bars around the world, but ask Japanese to name the sakana no o-sama – king of the fish (top layer, below) – and invariably they’ll say tai or sea bream. The Japanese catch and eat nearly 100,000 tonnes of the fish every year (including 70,000 tonnes farmed in Japan) and serve it as sashimi and sushi, as well as stewed, grilled, steamed in soup and marinated in vinegar. It’s low in fat and loaded with protein, vitamins and umami, the savoury taste beloved of foodies.
Tai is considered the perfect fish for a celebration since its name appears in the word medetai (auspicious). Guests at weddings, birthdays and New Year celebrations can expect to find the fish on the menu. When a sumo grand champion celebrates his tournament victory he will hold aloft a couple of hefty bream. While the cultivated fish tend to be black, the most highly prized are red sea bream (red being lucky in Japan) and none more so than the sakura-dai, the red-hued sea bream named after cherry blossom and caught in spring.