Many people avoid eating mackerel at Japanese restaurants, either skipping over it on the menu or specifically requesting the silver fish not be included in a pre-set sushi platter. Mackerel gets a bad rap for being particularly “fishy,” with a tendency for the strong flavor to linger on one’s palate (or fingers) for extended periods of time.
We think that’s a downright shame. Mackerel is very popular in Japan (primarily when served as sushi) and is especially healthy, packed with omega-3s, DHA and EPA. Fresher pieces of mackerel — served at more upscale establishments — are subtler in flavor, with varieties of the fish each offering distinct tastes. Here, chef Masaki Saito of New York City’s omakase mecca Sushi Ginza Onodera advocates on behalf of the oft-maligned fish, breaking down the four types of mackerel most commonly served in sushi restaurants.
Mackerel has the longest history in [traditional] edomae-style sushi. It is rich and has a strong flavor. Saba is usually cured for many hours with salt and vinegar before being served as sushi. This technique was developed to avoid food poisoning but has become essential to showcase the skills of a sushi chef. Many chefs also sear the fish to enhance its aroma. In addition to being served as nigiri, it can be prepared as a maki roll, with sushi rice wrapped inside cured saba. The fish’s best season is fall.
Spanish mackerel (sawara)
Sawara is the largest mackerel among the four listed here. It is known to be a spring-season fish and is very popular from spring to early summer. The variety of Spanish mackerel caught in the winter season is called kanzawara, and they are more buttery and super-tasty, as well. The color is whiter compared to other mackerels.
Horse mackerel (aji)
In Japan, horse mackerel is categorized in a different family. (Mackerel belongs to the Scombridae family, while horse mackerel belongs to the Carangidae family.) It is smaller than other mackerel and has a lighter flavor. Horse mackerel is also popular in edomae-style sushi and is usually served with freshly grated ginger and scallions. Its best season is summer.
Mackerel pike (sanma)
Mackerel pike, also known as Pacific saury, actually belongs to another family, too. It is a very popular fall ingredient in Japan and is usually served grilled as a whole fish; it was not commonly served as sushi until recently. Like saba, there are many ways to serve it as sushi. Some chefs sear it, while others serve it as pressed sushi (a more traditional and regional style); others serve it fermented. At Sushi Ginza Onodera, the fish is cured for many hours with salt and vinegar before being served as sushi. The best season is right now, from late summer to fall.
Fun fact: While tuna and bonito don’t have “mackerel” in their names, they also belong to the mackerel family.