What Is Firefly Squid?

As Food Republic's resident Japanese-food expert, I've come across many of the country's traditional culinary ingredients, from the mundane to the hard-to-find. Regardless of items' rarity or presentation, I try to approach each new experience with an open mind. And I've greatly enjoyed every new flavor I've come across except for one. Firefly squid (hotaru-ika) is an acquired taste that I, unlike others who swear by it, will not be acquiring.

So just what is firefly squid? Who better to ask than the chefs of two top-notch omakase-only restaurants in New York City. "It's a tiny squid that lights up like a firefly. It's beautiful," says chef Yoshi Kousaka of the city's new, understated fish paradise Kosaka (he formerly helmed Michelin-starred NYC sushi spot Jewel Bako). Beautiful, indeed — its fluorescent blue lights, a defense mechanism used to threaten enemies, are a captivating sight at night.

And now for the big question: What exactly does this tiny squid taste like? "I have to say, it tastes quite unique and strong," laughs Kousaka. Chef Masaki Saito of NYC's brand-new omakase mecca Sushi Ginza Onodera goes into further detail. "Taste-wise, its biggest characteristic is its liver. It is very thick and unique. Some people love it and some people hate it." And it's piquing diners' curiosity. "When I used to serve it in NYC more than ten years ago, American people were scared to eat or see the entire squid," reports Kousaka. "Nowadays, many people enjoy the texture and flavor."

Both chefs point out that firefly squid is a very seasonal ingredient that's only available from early to late spring. When it is shipped from Japan (most commonly from the Hokuriku region), chefs use a few different techniques to serve it. Kousaka and Saito describe a popular presentation that involves marinating steamed or boiled firefly squid with miso vinaigrette (sumiso­-ae). Other variations include fried (kara-age) and pickled in soy sauce (okizuke). Kousaka mentions that he served raw firefly-squid sushi this spring with a vinaigrette on top.

Intrigued enough to seek it out? You don't need to shell out the big bucks. Even though firefly squid can be found at high-end restaurants, it is not an expensive ingredient and is commonly used in more affordable restaurants like izakayas, agree the two chefs. So no excuses — you're up! Be sure to let us know if you try the dish in any of its forms and what you think.