Madai – Japanese Sea Bream
Cherry Blossom Bream, Celebration Fish, Genuine Tai, True Tai
Ma = Common, Dai = Tai. The name literally translates to “Common Tai”. Any fish with the ending Dai can be assumed it will be in the bream family. There are hundreds of fish with the ending Dai, although some may not be sea breams.
The number one selling fish on our menu has a large Japanese cultural significance. It means “celebration fish”, or “congratulations”, it is used in many celebratory occasion like weddings, graduations, birthdays, New Year’s Day etc. Caught in early spring, this fish is prized for its bright color and rich flavor, and is sometimes called “cherry blossom bream,” because the season coincides with the much-celebrated blossoming of the cherry trees. The Japanese consider red a lucky color that can ward of evil.
Madai are bottom living fish, living at depths between 10 to 200 meters deep and often on rough ground, sand and mud. This is a large fish that lives with smaller fish, it has little competition which allow it to live up to 60 years.
It is the elite fish of the well-known proverb, Kusattemo Tai, or “No matter how spoiled it may be, it’s still tai”—the implication being that no matter how reduced in circumstances, someone of quality is still respected. The reality behind this proverb lies in the great quantity of inosinic acid contained in sea bream, a substance that helps the flesh resist spoiling. Thus, even when Tai is no longer completely fresh, its flavor lasts longer than that of most fish.
We attempt to bring in as much wild madai as possible into our restaurants and supplement with farmed. There is very little difference in flavor between farmed and wild madai. Wild madai is very expensive and hard to acquire, but we attempt to get it mostly out of pride because farmed madai swims in shallower waters. When this happens, it can become sunburned and lose its bright red color, which in turn drops the value and market price. To prevent sunburns, farmers will cover the farming pens with black tarps.
Since this fish is so valued, other fish (mostly sea bream, snappers, and worst of all tilapia) will often be passed off as madai. The distinguishing feature that will let a sushi chef know that it is a True Tai or Genuine Tai, is the 19 spines on its dorsal fin. If it has any other number of spines, it is not a madai.