Ebi (shrimp) is one of the most common ingredients in Japanese cuisine. Whether you’ve enjoyed it fried as tempura, boiled and served as a piece of nigiri or cut up into small pieces and stuffed into a maki roll, chances are you’ve experienced shrimp multiple times in Japanese establishments across the United States. But did you know there are countless species of ebi used for culinary purposes?
Sure, your neighborhood sushi joint might toss a piece of boiled shrimp onto your entirely unspectacular “sushi deluxe” plate, but there are so many more types of ebi and preparations to experience. From giant prawns eaten head- and tail-on to tiny shrimp best enjoyed raw and by the handful, the Japanese world of ebi is as grand as it is diverse. We’ve narrowed down this guide to the five types of shrimp we’ve spotted most often while dining out at Japanese restaurants.
Most commonly used for Edomae-style sushi, kuruma-ebi is a high-end ingredient in Japanese restaurants. Its species include the Japanese tiger prawn, and it is caught in Tokyo Bay (the birthplace of Edomae sushi), according to chef Masaki Saito of NYC’s branch of the Tokyo-based omakase hot spot Sushi Ginza Onodera. He and chef Yoshi Kousaka of fellow NYC omakase joint Kosaka both mention that the entire (including shells and heads) kuruma-ebi is usually boiled for preservation purposes, in addition to full extraction of its natural sweetness.
Sushi chefs at upscale establishments will put the shrimp’s miso (liver) in between the rice to add a rich, flavorful component to the piece. In Japan, kuruma-ebi is frequently served live as odori sushi. Chef Kiyoshi Chikano of NYC tempura specialist Tempura Matsui adds that the restaurant uses maki-ebi for its signature shrimp tempura and points out that maki-ebi is actually the same species as kuruma-ebi but can only be called such if it is smaller than around 20 grams. He, too, mentions the shrimp’s high content of umami and well-balanced sweetness.
Translating to “sweet shrimp,” ama-ebi has a bit of a slimy texture and is commonly served raw and butterflied as sashimi (as well as sushi); it’s somewhat common to see it listed on the menus of fairly upscale Japanese restaurants. Its taste is very sweet, and chef Saito singles out ama-ebi from Hokkaido in Japan as his go-to, while chef Kousaka prefers using the delicacy found in Maine, calling it “super fresh and so clear that it’s almost transparent.” He does admit, however, that the availability of the state’s ama-ebi has decreased in the past half-decade and that it’s become more rare these days.
This translucent pink shrimp translates to “spring-season shrimp,” and it’s caught in the Suruga Bay of the Shizuoka Prefecture of Japan. It can be shipped fresh to NYC but only around May, as it is very seasonal. “Sakura-ebi can only be served raw when it is super fresh,” adds Kousaka. “It just does not last fresh for a long period.” So just how is it usually prepared? Saito lists dried or fried kaki-age (fritter) as the two most common preparations.
Currently in season, botan-ebi is similar in taste and appearance to ama-ebi. It is especially popular in the Hokkaido and Toyama prefectures of Japan, though chef Kousaka reveals that he is presently serving them farm-raised from both Seattle and Florida. One visible difference between botan-ebi and ama-ebi? The former is “plumper and larger,” though both are very sweet in taste and served raw as both sushi and sashimi.
Imagine a whiter, smaller, slimier version of ama-ebi and you’re envisioning shiro-ebi. The tiniest of all the species on this list — a single piece of sushi or sashimi contains multiple little shrimps — shiro-ebi “has been very popular among Americans recently,” reports Kousaka, who uses ones sent over from the Toyama prefecture of Japan. “Even when they are shipped frozen (with a special technique), they never get too liquid-y, which is a unique feature compared to other shrimp eaten raw.” Even more impressive? Each of the miniature shrimps is “cleaned piece by piece by hand before being shipped to the U.S.” Talk about exhaustive labor!