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Jan 4, 2023

HOW TOIn Spring, Sea Bream is the Color of Cherry Blossoms and in Fall, the Color of Autumn Leaves

Japanese sea bream, or madai in Japanese, is a highly prized fish known for its delicate flavor and tender flesh. Rooted in terroir and seasonality, this delicious fish changes color depending on the season.

Jan 4, 2023

Sea bream changes color from spring to fall

Sea bream is top-tier fish in Japan. It’s commonly served as sushi and sashimi, as well as in other forms like “namban-zuke” where the fish is marinated in a sweet and savory sauce and then deep-fried, or grilled with salt as “shioyaki”, marinated in vinegar as “suzuke” and deep-fried as “karaage.”

Incredibly, the color of sea bream actually changes depending on the season when it is caught! The fish’s color is primarily determined by the presence of the carotenoid pigment astaxanthin.

When sea bream is caught in spring, astaxanthin levels are high, resulting in a vibrant red color, similar to that of cherry blossoms, known as “sakura-dai” in Japanese. As fall approaches and the fish matures, the astaxanthin is metabolized, and sea bream acquires a more subdued red hue, similar to that of autumn leaves. This autumn sea bream is known as “momiji-dai” in Japanese.

More than meets the eye: Terroir and shifting flavors

The color change of the fish is not the only difference between the fish caught in spring and fall. The taste, texture, and fat content of the fish also change depending on the season. In the spring, when the fish is caught, it has a firmer texture and a higher fat content due to the fish’s active metabolism.

The life cycle of sea bream is linked to the seasons, and spring and fall are considered the best seasons to harvest the fish. In spring, it has a rich, buttery flavor highly sought after by sushi chefs. In the fall, the fish’s metabolism slows down as it takes in more nutrients to prepare for winter, making for a more delicate flavor that is well suited for sashimi.

Japanese cuisine is also deeply rooted in the concept of “terroir” – the unique characteristics of a location that influence the flavor of ingredients and products. Japan’s sea bream are a great example, as they’re influenced by the specific waters they are caught in. Sea bream caught in the Ise Bay area are considered to be among the best in Japan.

Wabi-sabi and embracing an ever-changing culinary landscape

The use of local ingredients and the concept of terroir is also closely tied to the idea of wabi-sabi in Japanese culture. Wabi-sabi is a philosophy that emphasizes the beauty of imperfection and the transient nature of life. This philosophy is reflected in the use of local ingredients in Japanese cuisine, which may only be found in a certain location, or at a certain time. This allows a unique character to be presented through ingredients and products that reflect their terroir.

Japanese cuisine encourages embracing unique flavors and of local ingredients, and sea bream changing flavor and color according to the season is a great example. Whether you’re a chef looking to elevate your dishes or just a foodie looking to try something new, checking out the different types of sea bream, and learning how they’re caught and prepared, is a great way to explore ideas of Japanese seasonality and terroir.