King of all fish
This stately fish is not only visually impressive, but a delicacy with layers of flavour and history.
No traditional Japanese celebration is complete without a bright red, fully intact and giant sea bream at the centre of a feast. The king of all fish, the sea bream or tai has been Japan’s most symbolic and culturally significant fish for centuries. Tai is often the central dish in big celebrations such as weddings, graduation dinners and New Year’s parties. The fish’s bright red scales and stately head-to-tail appearance add visual festivity to any occasion, but appreciation for the fish is deep-rooted and has been preserved in Japan for over 5,000 years. There’s even an old saying that goes, “Rotten tai is still tai,” meaning that something as exquisite as tai remains valuable even if it is not in its prime state.
Tai has been consumed in Japan dating back to at least the Neolithic period, a fact known because of large quantities of tai bones excavated from ancient shell mounds. Engishiki, a document dating back to 927 AD, describes rituals and ceremonies during the Heian period (794–1185), including a variety of ways tai was cooked and prepared and how it was presented as an annual offering to the emperor. Elements of these ancient traditions still remain today, such as the annual offering of dried tai to deities in shrines.
Come early spring, tai move from the deep ocean into shallow waters off the coast to spawn. Their bright red scales are the result of a diet consisting mainly of shrimp, which are full of astaxanthin, and tai tend to reach the height of their redness before they spawn. Because their appearance and the timing of their arrival coincide with the much-celebrated blossoming of pink-coloured cherry trees in the spring, the sakuradai variety is considered to be the most prized variant of the fish.
Tai represents luck and prosperity throughout the country, which is why it is such a key element in celebrations. In some parts of the country, kakedai or hanging sea bream is a New Year’s tradition, in which two dried tai fillets are tied together by straw and hung over doors for luck. For even better luck, the fish are brought down and consumed six months later on the first day of June. This is also not an uncommon decoration for wedding celebrations.
Full of umami but low in fat, rich in DHA and various vitamins and minerals, tai is an excellent health food that is known to be effective for brain health, heart health, lowering blood pressure and slowing down aging symptoms.
Salt-grilled tai is the most traditional method of cooking tai and is a great way to enjoy the natural flavours of the fish. The good news is, it couldn’t be easier to prepare: all you have to do is take an entire fish, sprinkle salt over it and let it cure for 30 minutes before rinsing off the salt and grilling it. Present the whole fish intact to stick with tradition. The fish is also delicious as sashimi or in tai meshi, seasoned rice with bits of tai.
A fish to celebrate
Tai has been in the Japanese culinary spotlight for centuries, and for good reason.
Fittingly, the term omedetai means something worth celebrating.
- A popular idiom goes, “Use shrimp as bait to fish for tai,” meaning you can gain a big profit using small investments.
- Some varieties of tai live for 30 to 40 years—another reason they are considered to be a lucky fish.
- Different tai breeds are available all year round, making it a fish that is delicious every season.
- Taiyaki is a traditional tai-shaped pastry filled with red bean paste. There is even a popular children’s song called “Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun” (Swim, taiyaki boy!) in tribute to the snack.
- Ebisu, the Japanese god of fishermen, is traditionally depicted holding a fishing rod and a giant sea bream.