Japanese Horse Mackerel
What is Maaji (Japanese Horse Mackerel)?
The Japanese horse mackerel or Japanese jack mackerel is called maaji in Japanese, which is translated as “true horse mackerel”. In addition to sushi and sashimi, Japanese horse mackerel (maaji) is used in numerous Japanese dishes and is considered one of the most popular edible fish in Japan. If you find aji (アジ) on the Japanese menu or presented in the neta box (netabako, (ネタ箱) of an authentic sushi restaurant, it is usually Japanese horse mackerel (maaji).
Maaji as Ingredient for Sushi or Sashimi
The meat is tender, pinkish in color and fatty. As nigiri sushi, it is often garnished with ginger (gari, ガリ) and spring onions (negi, 葱). In upscale or more sophisticated sushi restaurants, freshly grated ginger is sometimes placed between the rice and the meat. Thanks to its high fat content, Japanese horse mackerel (maaji) paired with vinegared sushi rice makes a tasty combination.
Nowadays, Japanese horse mackerel (maaji) is widely used raw as an ingredient in the preparation of sushi, although it is also very tasty when classically pickled in a vinegar-salt solution (sujime, 酢じめ). Using the sujime method adds an additional refreshing aftertaste to the already tasty meat.
Japanese horse mackerel (maaji) tastes delicious all year round, but it is said to be most tasty from April to September, not right before and after spawning season [Iwabuchi, 2019]. During this time, fish begin to accumulate larger fat reserves for spawning in the fall. Unlike late summer, at this time the fat tissue is in perfect balance. During this period they are neither too lean nor too fat, and therefore remarkably tasty.
Maaji in Japan
Japanese horse mackerel (maaji) is well known to most people in Japan, as it is a common fish both in restaurants and at home. It can be found in supermarkets and fish markets throughout the year. Aji migrates with the warm ocean currents along the coast of Japan, so it is caught throughout Japan at all times of the year. The spawning season also varies depending on the marine region and conditions so they are available in good quality for a relatively long time.
In Japan a distinction is made between the yellowish Japanese horse mackerel (kimaaji) and the dark Japanese horse mackerel (kuromaaji). The yellow variety is less migratory and remains predominantly in coastal areas and bays. Since yellowish Japanese horse mackerel (kimaaji) therefore has to expend less energy for migrations, they are more greasy, wider and larger than the dark Japanese horse mackerel (kuromaaji). Due to the fact that dark Japanese horse mackerel (kuromaaji) continues to live in the sea, it is more easily accessible for industrial fishing and therefore represents the greater part of the catch. Yellowish Japanese horse mackerel (kimaaji) from the southern bay of Tokyo are particularly popular in Japan upscale cuisine, as they are caught by hand and in small quantities. The bay has a large supply of plankton and is therefore rich in food, which is important for the growth of yellowish Japanese horse mackerel (kimaaji).
In Japan, several regional brands of Japanese horse mackerel (maaji) exist. Among them, Japanese horse mackerel (maaji) fished in the narrows of the Bungo Channel (sekiaji, 関あじ) and those caught off the west coast of Shimane Prefecture (don chitchi aji, どんちっちアジ) are considered especially popular. [OFCSB, 2015]
In Japanese the word “aji” (味、あじ) also means “taste”. So it is not far to believe that the fish was given this name because it is so tasteful.
Characteristics & Ecology of Maaji (Japanese Horse Mackerel)
On average Japanese horse mackerel (maaji) reaches a size of 35 cm (14″), single species can reach a size of up to 50 cm (20″). Their main food source are mainly small crustaceans and smaller fish. Usually they are found in depths from 50 (165′) to 275 m (900′).
Japanese horse mackerel (maaji) is a popular dish and belongs to the most important commercial fish species worldwide. The worldwide production (catch and aquaculture) of Japanese horse mackerel (maaji) in 2018 was 189 376 tons according to FAO. Japan's share (118 700 t) represents about 62% of the world total. In 1998 the share was still about 91%. It is mainly caught in trawls and purse seines.
Further information on the author can be found in the section on image credits.
Distribution Area of Maaji
Source: Kaschner, K., Kesner-Reyes, K., Garilao, C., Segschneider, J., Rius-Barile, J. Rees, T., & Froese, R. (2019, October). AquaMaps: Predicted range maps for aquatic species. Retrieved from https://www.aquamaps.org. Scarponi, P., G. Coro, and P. Pagano. A collection of Aquamaps native layers in NetCDF format. Data in brief 17 (2018): 292-296.
Species of Maaji
The following species are regarded as authentic. Either historically, according to the area of distribution or according to the common practice in today's gastronomy:
Common Names, Scientific Name
Japanese horse mackerel, Japanese jack mackerel, Japanese scad
References & Further Reading
- [FAO 2019]: Fishery and Aquaculture Statistics, Statistiques des pêches et de l’aquaculture, Estadísticas de pesca y acuicultura 2017. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome. 2019.
- [Froese & Daniel, 2019]: Rainer Froese, Pauly Daniel. FishBase. The Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Kiel, FishBase.org. 2019. https://www.fishbase.org. Retrieved online on December 24, 2020.
- [Fujiwara, 2020]: 昌髙藤原. ぼうずコンニャクの市場魚貝類図鑑 (engl. Bozu Konyaku's Market Fish and Shellfish Book). Bozu Konnyaku Co., Ltd., Tokyo ぼうずコンニャク株式会社東京, zukan-bouz.com. 2020. https://www.zukan-bouz.com/. Retrieved online on December 27, 2021.
- [HCMIE, 2019]: 浜田の水産ブランド“どんちっち”～どんちっちアジ (engl. Hamada's Fishery Brand “Don-Chicchi“ - Don-Chicchi Horse Mackerel). Hamada City Ministry of Industry and Economy Fisheries Promotion Division (浜田市 産業経済部 水産振興課). 2019. https://www.city.hamada.shimane.jp/www/contents/1001000002251/index.html. Retrieved online on February 16, 2021.
- [Iwabuchi, 2019]: Hisayo Iwabuchi. The In-Season Fish, Aji (Horse Mackerel). Shun Gate, Toppan Inc, Tokyo. 2019. https://shun-gate.com/en/power/power_71/. Retrieved online on December 27, 2021.
- [Mouritsen, 2006]: Ole G. Mouritsen. Sushi: Food for the Eye, the Body and the Soul. Jepsen & Co, Copenhagen. 2006.
- [OFCSB, 2015]: Saganoseki brand: There's a reason why “Seki“ is in the brand name (佐賀関ブランド：ブランド名に”関”がつくには理由がある). Oita Fisheries Cooperative Saganoseki Branch (大分県漁業協同組合 佐賀関支店). 2015. http://sekiajisekisaba.or.jp/brand/. Retrieved online on February 16, 2021.
- [Wakimoto, 2020]: 哲朗脇本. 初夏の東京湾『金アジ』が絶品の理由 ノドグロと同等の価格になることも (engl. Why Tokyo Bay's "golden horse mackerel" in early summer is so delicious: The price is sometimes the same as that of nodoguro.). tsurinews.jp, TSURINEWS 編集部, Tokyo. 2020. https://tsurinews.jp/108459/.