A Season for Sushi

April 20, 2015 Updated: October 8, 2018

As it turns out, there is a season for everything under the sun, and that includes fish.

But unlike farm-raised animals, wild fish are constantly on the move.

In Japan, sushi lovers have a minor obsession following their movements, as they ride on the currents that circulate along the coastlines, looking for their next meal.

Where warm and cold currents meet, they strike gold. Plankton is plentiful there, mixing with the nutrients that percolate from the mountains, down the rivers into the sea, according to Toshio Suzuki, master chef at at Sushi Zen in Midtown.

“People are always concerned which place has what type of plankton, if the fish ate a lot of plankton or not,” Suzuki said.

Signs of Spring

In the Edo era, poet Yamaguchi Sodo (1642–1716), a contemporary of Basho, wrote a haiku about the harbingers of spring: “Before my eyes the green-leaved hills, the small cuckoo, and the first bonito.”

Much ado is made about hatsu-katsuo (the first bonito) as bringer of good luck in the new year. Riding on the warmer northward currents, these fish are leaner, but fatten up as they eat their way around the island. 

When they return southward later in the year, their flesh is rich and fatty. In restaurants, they are then referred to as modori-katsuo (modori means “to return”).

How lean or fatty the fish should be is entirely a personal preference.

“Most American people, they say, ‘It’s like butter. Ah, to me, it’s too rich,” Suzuki laughed. “In Japan, old men my age, they don’t like to eat a lot of fat. But the young generation welcomes that.”

Sushi Zen is one of a handful of restaurants in the city that offers an extensive menu of seasonal fish with varying textures, flavors, and fat content for different palates—alongside regular offerings like tuna, salmon, or yellowtail.

It does take some practice to appreciate the seasonal fish. But try the same fish at different times during the year, and you will start to notice differences in flavors and textures.

At the moment, diners can find at Sushi Zen baby sea bream, for example, which has texture but is tender at the same time. It is lightly marinated in rice vinegar and delicately rolled up with egg yolk—which gives enhances the vinegar flavor.

It’s also the best time to try wild amberjack (hiramasa), at its peak of flavor.

There’s also shellfish: sweet botan shrimp (botan means peony) has just come in. Surf clams have also recently arrived; they boast a texture that is decided un-clam-like, more like scallop or abalone.

These will be offered for about another couple of months, until Suzuki brings in the summer’s best catch.

Sushi Zen
108 W. 44th St. (between 6th and 7th avenues)
Monday–Friday noon–10 p.m.
Saturday 5 p.m.–10 p.m.
Closed Sundays