Sashimi, some love it, some scrunch their nose at it, and some fans of Japanese cuisine may have never even heard of it. A sushi restaurant overseas has tons of sashimi options, but the world's biggest kaiten (revolving) sushi only has a few?! What??
Fortunately, we're here to demystify the simple, elegant dish and offer some top picks for anyone in the market to try. As a country known for its high food standards and quality, sushi, sashimi, and their kin might be visitors' gateway to the delicious world of raw food in Japan. Keep reading to dive into the story of a food like no other, Japan's sashimi.
What is Sashimi?
Sashimi is yet another Japanese word that literally describes what it is! Cut flesh. Simply the meat of a fish that has been sliced and left to be eaten raw, fresh, and delicious. It's not uncommon to hear it called “sashimi sushi” in the English-speaking world, and while their origins overlap, sashimi and sushi are inherently different.
Sashimi 刺身 is usually written with kanji for cut or pierce and flesh. Unsurprisingly, this was considered an unsightly and violent way to express the idea thousands of years ago. The most recognizable way of writing comes from Kanto, but in Kansai, an even gentler spelling is used, removing the stabbing/slicing imagery altogether.
Sashimi often comes with sides of grated wasabi and soy sauce and is served atop threads of daikon radish with a shiso leaf for garnish. Sometimes dandelions or little plastic grass-shaped dividers decorate the tray, too, especially at supermarkets. You can recognize sashimi as cuts of raw fish neatly layered over each other, with each slice usually being about 2 inches long and half a centimeter thick.
Fresh sashimi has a restrained flavor compared to the cooked versions of their fish, and the texture of the meat itself varies by species. Some fish have a high enough fat content that they seem to melt in your mouth, while others have a bouncy, firm texture.
Sashimi vs. Sushi - What's the difference?
As we often see it served today, the primary division between sashimi and sushi is the presence of rice. Sashimi is just the meat, while sushi comes wrapped in or sitting atop rice.
It could also be argued that the current form of sashimi is limited to just fish meat, and then any form of treatment turns the “sashimi” into sushi. Examples of this are historical foods like the first version of sushi: just preserved raw fish prepared with vinegar. There may not be any rice, but because it isn’t eaten fresh, we consider that sushi.
This brings us to the history of sashimi.
The History of Sashimi
Rather than following a straight line of origin, it appears that today’s sashimi is the amalgamation of various ways to eat raw fish that came up as ages passed. The oldest record of the sale of a dish called sushi comes from menu boards found in castle ruins in Nara.
Records from the 1400s discuss sashimi as a way to cut the flesh of a fish so that its variety can be identified even when you can’t see the fins. These journals specifically mention tai, but for many years, the fish seems to have fallen out of fashion, replaced by other types of sashimi fish like katsuo under the samurai era and even koi.
At first, thickly cut fish that was too dense to be preserved was said to be eaten as sashimi, while thinner cuts were pickled with koji, vinegar, and bitter ingredients, becoming the first sushi. At the early stages of culinary development, the distinction between sushi and sashimi is somewhat unclear. Still, ultimately the more simply the raw fish was treated, the closer it became to what we eat as sashimi today.
The variety of additions gradually narrowed down to wasabi and soy sauce as the primary sides for contemporary sashimi. Vinegar, wasabi, sake, salt, and other elements both helped preserve early forms of sashimi and added flavor to the mild dish. When soy sauce brewed in the south of Japan became a hit in Edo, it joined the mix as a sashimi staple. Fishing villages, like the port town of Katsuura featured in our video below, became a popular source for bringing fresh fish into the capital.
Introduced through Chiba, southern spawning fish like kanpachi and southern soy sauce helped popularize sashimi in the capital. Eventually, sashimi went from a laughable way to eat lower-quality fish, to a rarity on high-class tables, to a daily meal.
However, until the end of World War 2, sushi was only really available to the common people in large cities with good ocean access, like Tokyo and Osaka. When refrigeration and infrastructure technology advanced, people living in the country's center could also access fresh fish and thus sashimi and raw sushi. Despite its popularization hundreds of years ago, the way we enjoy sashimi today is greatly a result of modern technology!
5 Most Popular Types of Sashimi
According to Macaroni, one of Japan’s most popular food news outlets, the top five sashimi choices are as follows….
5. Kanpachi (Amberjack)
The fifth most popular sashimi species is Kanpachi, or Amberjack. It is named for the figure-8 shape on its head, and sashimi from this fish is unique for its firm (one might say crunchy) texture. Kanpachi sashimi is mainly fished alongside katsuo in the South of Japan through summer and autumn and is a lean, mild fish.
4. Buri/Hamachi (Yellowtail)
In America, we can get escolar sashimi and call it “white tuna.” If you are a fan of this cut like I am, you will surely enjoy the winter delicacy that is buri sashimi. From December to March, yellowtail in the Sea of Japan swim near shore to spawn and winter in waters with abundant feed. For sashimi lovers, this means a delicious, rich fish with white or bicolor red-white flesh.
Like tuna, the meat’s fat content increases towards the belly, giving you a delightful melt-in-your-mouth flavor that goes perfectly with soy sauce. Buri is the name given to mature, winter-spawning yellowtail, while younger, smaller hamachi is available year-round.
3. Tai (Seabream)
Records show that Tai was likely the first sashimi, so it’s unsurprisingly a delicious and much-loved cut. With two seasons in spring and fall, it's easy to find delicious tai sashimi. Seabream has a lean, mildly sweet, and translucent flesh accented with pink-red stripes. It comes in many forms, from dark kurodai to kinmedai with its golden eyes. The name is said to come from the Japanese “medetai,” which you might recognize as the middle of “omedetougozaimasu!”, meaning congratulations.
2. Maguro (Tuna)
Maguro or tuna is ranked second in the types of fish used for sashimi. From mild, pink, and lean Thai maguro to the stunning red of honmaguro akami, the look and variety of tuna sashimi vary greatly. Kuromaguro, literally “black maguro,” is called the black diamond of the sea and is considered the peak of quality. Akami (lean, bright red meat with a distinctive flavor), chu-toro (middle-fatty), ootoro (fatty tuna), and negitoro (chopped fatty tuna with onions) and popular cuts of maguro, with prices going up along with fat-content.
Since it’s such a prized fish, folks have devised inventive ways to improve the flavor of even lower-quality tuna, like using salt instead of soy sauce. This method is said to bring out the umami of the fish and enhance its richness. Next time you get your hands on some tuna sashimi, why not try out a new way to enjoy it? You can learn all about Maguro in byFood's Wakayama excursion, where we visit tuna town and sample some of Southern Japan's best tuna!
See for yourself pro's preparing tuna from fish to sashimi in our Tuna Cutting All-You-Can-Eat Experience in Tokyo.
Beloved by children and the elderly, available in any self-respecting Japanese sakana-ya, is our top choice: salmon. Salmon sashimi is soft and easy to eat, with good richness and fat content. Salmon sashimi’s popularity has led to new ways to eat it inspired by the west, such as avocado-mayo salmon sashimi. Some people even recommend adding salted seaweed drinking snacks to mimic the taste of pricey salmon-eggs, ikura.
These, of course, are only the top five most popular fish used for sashimi, but the ocean is deep and wide, and far more species are deliciously prepared and enjoyed. Read more about fish used for sashimi on byFood in our sushi beginner's guide!
Sashimi B-sides and Rarities
- Ika Somen (Squid)
- Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp)https://www.freepik.com/free-photo/raw-fresh-shrimp-prawn-sashimi_4011451.htm#query=%E3%81%82%E3%81%BE%E3%81%88%E3%81%B3&position=17&from_view=search&track=ais
- Sawara (Spanish Mackerel)
- Shime Saba (Cured Mackerel) https://img.freepik.com/premium-photo/salted-marinated-herring-cut-slices-slices-boiled-potato-with-rings-fresh-onion-dill-white-plate-closeup_187433-470.jpg?size=626&ext=jpg&ga=GA1.2.1512780689.1668148763&semt=ais
- Katsuo (Bonito)
- Kujira (Whale)
- Horse Meat
- Torisashi (Chicken)
Ika Somen, Squid Sashimi
If you are one of those people on a super high protein diet but miss the texture of slippery, chewy udon noodles, you might give this form of sashimi a try! Fresh squid is sliced vertically to create suspiciously noodle-shaped strips of sashimi that resemble summertime noodles called somen. Also slurped and eaten cold with grated ginger and soy sauce, some people even apply mentsuyu (noodle dipping sauce) to ika somen, just like real noodles. This cut of sashimi is called "Ito-zukuri", meaning to create threads or elongated shapes from the sashimi meat. Squid meat served in somen form or simply sliced like regular sashimi, is sweet and bouncy, but much easier to chew than octopus, "tako" sashimi!
In nigiri sushi, it's common to see cooked, butterflied shrimp tails labeled simply as ebi. When eaten raw, while the shrimp are still young and impressively soft and sweet, we call them amaebi. Literally, it just means sweet shrimp. They live deep in the Northern waters of Japan and are typically enjoyed in their usual cylindrical shape, not butterflied. Early summer and autumn are the best seasons to enjoy spot prawn amaebi sashimi.
Sawara's "season" varies from region to region. In winter, fatty fishes are served with a flavor likened to maguro. In spring, sakura-sawara are said to ring in the cherry blossom season with their pale pink flesh. No matter when or where you eat it, sawara is considered to be an easy and delicious cut of sashimi. Good seared, like katsuo, preserved in koji like ordinary mackerel, or just raw on shredded daikon, there is not really a bad way to enjoy sawara. Thanks to its versatility and year-round availability, it's one of our most recommended cuts, even if it didn't make Japan's top-five.
Mackerel isn't eaten raw as sashimi, but you will still see it in sashimi arrangements in the form of shine saba, a pickled/cured version made with a few simple preservatives: vinegar and salt. Shime saba has a strong flavor and a little bit of a chew to it. If you like gefelte fish, pickled herring, or any of those forms of preserved fish that get a little stiff from the preservatives, you will probably like saba too. Or if you hate those other varieties, you will still probably like shime saba, honestly. It's actually one of the easiest and safest forms of sashimi to enjoy at home since the meat is preserved. The kombushime version adds kombu seaweed as an ingredient, letting the polyphenols found in seaweed help flavor and preserve the raw meat. Sometimes rice koji is used instead of vinegar too, since it's a very traditional Japanese preservative.
We've briefly touched on bonito, or skipjack tuna, without ever mentioning its sashimi form, so now's the time to do it. Katsuo features prominently in Japanese cuisine, its dried form becoming the feathery katsuoboshi atop rice bowls and the rich stock of delicious soups. As tataki (seared on the outside, raw inside), katsuo makes a delicious sashimi. The flesh isn't very fatty, and the quality deteriorates quickly, so it's best eaten fresh (and in season). Before bluefin maguro tuna became king, katsuo was one of the most prized catches in the land. Rumors have it that men would even trade their wives for a bite of the best stuff! Katsuo's iron-y flavor lends itself better to garlic and ginger, astringent flavors that help cut through, rather than wasabi's prickling, floral dryness. It's also delicious with tare, a kind of thick sauce applied to some sashimi. Kochi prefecture is known for its katsuo production, and you can get some awesome Kochi-sake to drink with your katsuo sashimi on our marketplace. Enjoy katsuo in early summer, around May, when it's at its best.
Keeping up traditions of whaling culture has allowed Japanese fishermen to continue to offer kujira sashimi in regulated quantities to fishmongers and sushi chefs. To speak to the flavor of whale sashimi, its almost gamey, with a rich iron content that gives it a similar taste to lean steak. Kujira tataki (seared) sets and yuke (egg-yolk marinated) are sometimes even available at supermarkets, but you'll have to hunt if you want a taste of this centuries-old tradition. Due to its controversy, kujira sashimi is not readily advertised compared to its more common counterparts, but adventure seekers will still be able to find it if they look hard enough.
Years ago, urban legend has it that a schoolboy died of food poisoning from eating raw beef served at a restaurant, and the government outlawed the sale of raw beef as a menu item. Thus, gyuu-sashimi is sadly not an option. However, there is another four-legged umlot that you can enjoy in sashimi form, thanks to Japan's connection with China. You'll find it in izakaya, specialty restaurants, and Chinese joints. That is sakura niku. Although the origins are unclear, the name sakura niku could be a reference to the traditional arrangement of horse meat on a plate or its bright hue. It also happens to be commonly eaten in Spring. Neck meat is said to be especially popular for sashimi and expresses all the particulars of horse meat, from its unique taste to the "I feel like I've had these somewhere before" texture.
Chicken Sashimi (Torisashi) https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/raw-chicken-sashimi-traditional-japanese-food-519178831
My first food tour in Japan introduced me to the chilling sight of raw chicken sashimi being enjoyed with drafts of nama beer. Of course, us travelers were all dared to try it, and the conclusion might surprise you: It's pretty delicious! Chicken sashimi has a very mild flavor and a firm but gentle mouthfeel, like tai or sawara. The nearly white, cleanly drained meat is raised and prepared to Japan's exacting standards, so you can be assured of its safety. Of course, eating raw meat always comes with some risks, but these guys are experts. As long as you're eating it in a licensed izakaya or similar establishment....this is not a sashimi we recommend trying outside of Japan! One of the best ways to try torisashi is along the yokocho drinking streets of Shibuya, Meguro, or even Shimbashi. Anywhere you can find great yakitori, you'll be able to find high-quality torisashi, so it's worth a try if you're in the country. It's not nearly as controversial of a story as trying whale, after all. Impress your friends, surprise yourself. Why not?
How to Eat Sashimi
Neatly pinch individual slices with your chopsticks and lightly apply soy sauce in drips or by dipping the fish in a small dish. A little bit of soy sauce and wasabi help bring out the flavor. But, take care not to drown out the unique deliciousness of your chosen sashimi!
Eat the slivered daikon, too, according to chef Reiko Yamaguchi. Daikon’s antiseptic properties not only keep the fish fresh but can help clean your palate and fight against food poisoning. Always a bonus when you’re eating something raw, right?
How to Prepare Sashimi at Home
There are two simple rules for preparing sashimi at home: use sashimi-grade fish, and make keen use of a yanagiba knife. High-quality yanagiba knives are available in byFood's online gourmet market.
It goes without saying that because modern sashimi is untreated with vinegar, heat, or other preservatives, only the freshest, sashimi-grade fish should be used for sashimi. The fish must be cleanly processed, caught in safe waters, and kept at a stable temperature. Take precautions by buying your fish locally at wet markets and double-check with your fishmonger whether your fish is safe to eat or prepare as sashimi before diving in.
Japan has a long history of crafting specialty blades, from samurai swords to unique cooking knives. Among these are yanagiba knives, the long, thin, and extremely sharp specialty knives made for cleanly slicing fish. The nicest ones feature small indentations on the flat side of the knife that keep slices of sashimi from sticking, which would tear the meat.
A yanagiba knife is intended to be pulled swiftly toward the user with a light touch. Their unique construction has been honed (no pun intended) by sashimi experts over hundreds of years, making them the only tool suitable for the job. On the marketplace, we offer a variety of yanagiba knives that are hand selected with our partners and easy to use, even for budding sushi chefs. Slice without fear because byFood is here!
Where to Eat Sashimi in Tokyo
Of course, the best place to eat sashimi in Tokyo is at its source: the impressive Tsukiji and Toyosu markets!
Check out one of Tokyo's Fish Markets or join a Tokyo Market Tour to sample some of the freshest fish available in the world.
Alternatively, relax in the intimate atmosphere of Michelin-starred Takumi Sushi Owana, where seasonal fish is chosen and prepared by hand each day. You can feel comfortable leaving choices up to the chef and just enjoy the moment. Sushi chefs apprentice for years before being considered knowledgeable enough to prepare sashimi, much less choose their own fish! There is no better choice for an unforgettable dining experience with all the trimmings than an omakase course like this.
Sashimi may have a reputation as a high-class and hard-to-come-by food because of its demanding freshness standards, but cozy izakaya can offer some of the best sashimi thanks to the deep care taken by their masters. Slip into Hiro-o’s Sakedokoro Yamane, where the chef goes out fishing personally once a week and selects his fish by hand each morning at the market, or the hidden gem of Jijii, located in a residential hamlet of Tokyo.
Ironically, you might expect that ordinary sushi restaurants like Sushiro or Kura would have lots of sashimi on the menu, but you'll find that their rotating plates are filled with gunkan and nigiri sushi instead. If you want to eat sashimi that goes beyond a couple of slices of tuna or salmon, you'll need to venture out! But don't worry, since finding the best restaurants for any kind of Japanese cuisine is exactly what we specialize in.
Growing up along the warm coastal waters of Florida, my father was an avid fisherman. Once or twice a summer, he would bring home sparkly white, translucent amberjack from the gulf. The local fisherman would check its quality, slice it, and my elementary-age sister and I would soak the raw fish in a soy-sauce soup and pick it up with unskillful fingers the way you might eat a gummy worm.
We ate our kanpachi “raw,” but our unrestrained use of the salty condiment practically pickled it. Its easy-to-eat firm flesh was neither slimy nor fishy, making it a great first sashimi for young girls. Thanks to this nostalgia, I have to recommend kanpachi sashimi as a solid first-time option!
My second choice is the king of sashimi, maguro. Maguro sashimi is delicious, readily available worldwide, and a quintessential example of Japanese cuisine. If raw fish is new or intimidating, maguro sashimi can be enjoyed seared as tataki. I recommend you taste and compare the difference between slices of chu-toro and akami. Experience just how skilled sashimi chefs are in expressing the unique characteristics of each cut. Like a fine steak, each of the many cuts of tuna has its charms and best preparation methods. Different types of sashimi, even within maguro sashimi, can be enjoyed in the same way. Different levels of flavor, fat content, and subspecies make discovering maguro through sashimi especially fun!
In closing, sashimi is a quintessential form of Japanese dining, which combines the expertise and preferences of Japanese people across hundreds of years. From the first fish to be eaten as sashimi, tai, and katsuo, to the modern popularity of varieties like salmon and tuna, the world of sashimi is as wide and deep as the seas that birthed it. So take a bite and enjoy one of Japan’s most famous foods!