Guide on sushi-grade tuna fish | Maguro (マグロ, 鮪, tuna in Japanese)

                by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  December 27, 2021

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The tuna fish (scientific name: Thunnini, a subgrouping of the Scombridae family) is one of the top ocean predators that eats sardines and squid while scouring the open sea.

To satisfy their insatiable desire to consume this ocean “king”, the Japanese would chase the tuna anywhere in the world just to put it on their dinner table; a need so powerful that it transformed the fishing industry dramatically.

a crowd of fishes

It’s a story that started in the high economic growth period of the postwar era. However, the art of making tuna-based dishes dates back to ancient Japan.

In the Japanese tongue, tuna is called chūna (チューナ) or maguro (マグロ, 鮪).

There are currently 6 different kinds of tuna being mainly distributed in Japanese markets. The most sought-after varieties of tuna are the high-grade bluefin tuna (kuromaguro) and the southern bluefin tuna (minamimaguro).

Another crowd favorite is the bigeye tuna (mebachi), which is known for its unique delicious taste due to its fat. The mebachi is caught during autumn and winter seasons as they travel off of the eastern Sea of Japan.

Meanwhile, the albacore tuna (binnaga) is more common in sushi restaurants. The yellowfin (kihaga) and longtail (koshinaga) tuna are at the bottom end of the hierarchy, but it doesn’t mean that they’re any less delicious. In fact, they outsell the other types of tuna in some regions in Japan!

Though all of the 6 kinds are tuna, they differ in appearance, production areas, flavor, and what dishes they’re used for.

The 6 types of tuna used for making sushi

A Japanese chef once said that he thanks the gods for giving us tuna; otherwise, there would be no sushi or sashimi. Pondering on that thought, I can relate to what he meant and indeed the taste of tuna is second to none.

Below, you’ll find some of the best tuna species that Japanese chefs use to make sushi and other delicious Japanese cuisines.

1. Kuromaguro (bluefin tuna)

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There are 2 kinds of bluefin tuna found in our oceans and each of them is indigenous to two of the 7 oceans of the world. One is called the Pacific bluefin tuna and the other’s name is the Atlantic bluefin tuna.

The Japanese fishermen call them both “honmaguro” (top-class tuna). And they can grow as much as 4 meters in length and weigh up to 600 kg, sometimes more!

The kuromaguro are high-speed swimmers that marine biologists clock cruising around 50 to 55 mph, and can travel long distances too! When they’re at the juvenile stage, chefs call them “meji” or “yokowa”, and are mainly eaten as sashimi.

Humans have been interacting with these sea creatures since ancient times and they’ve been mentioned in the writings of past civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea as part of their diet.

Also, the ancient Jomon people of Japan have been using the kuromaguro in their dishes as far back as 16,500 years ago!

Today, bluefin tuna are being exported to Japan from other countries, as overfishing has grown into an immense problem in our time. As a result, limits on catches and the rearing of eggs and young tuna in artificial methods have been tested.

Japanese fishermen have determined that the best time to catch bluefin tuna is during the autumn and winter seasons, as it accumulates the most fat in its belly during these times. They call this fat “toro” and is considered a class A sushi ingredient for its exquisite taste, but its meat is also delicious.

The taste of the tuna also varies depending on the location of where the fish was caught.

Also read: the beginners guide to sushi, learn everything about sushi

2. Minamimaguro (southern bluefin tuna)

Between the spring and summer seasons in Japan, when the southern bluefin tuna (minamimaguro) migrates to the middle latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere, they gain a lot of fat in their bellies, which is the most delicious part of their body.

This type of tuna is also called “Indo maguro” (Indian tuna) and it can grow up to 2 meters (6.56 feet) in length and weigh as much as 150 kg. This makes the southern bluefin tuna the second-largest tuna in the world after the kuromaguro (bluefin tuna).

Prior to the 1980s, this fish was widely used in canned goods. However, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has prohibited it ever since, as overfishing forced them to include it in their Red List of species in danger of extinction.

On May 20, 1994, more than 7 countries united created the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in order to limit the catch of bluefin tuna to prevent its extinction.

The member countries include:

  1. Australia
  2. The Fishing Entity of Taiwan
  3. Indonesia
  4. Japan
  5. Republic of Korea
  6. New Zealand
  7. South Africa
  8. European Union

As a result, fish stocks are recovering. Presently, nearly all of the minamimaguro caught in the world is used in Japan as sashimi ingredients. The thinly-sliced flesh of the minamimaguro gives off a strong pleasant flavor and acidic taste.

Once upon a time, the word “otoro” (very fatty belly flesh) was exclusively used only for minamimaguro and kuromaguro. However, today, the term means “portions with much fat” and is used in general terms.

3. Mebachi (bigeye tuna)

The mebachi, or bigeye tuna, is a fish that primarily dwells in the tropical and temperate zones of the oceans. Its main distinguishing features are its eyes and head, which are out of proportion when compared to its body size, and the shape of its body is dumpy as well.

Mebachi has a particularly bright red meat color. Mebachi have a moderately pronounced flavor, a high fat content (chutoro) with marbling near the skin, and a richer flavor than the yellowfin tuna.

On some rare occasions, fishermen have caught bigeye tunas that weighed over 200 kg. But normally, they mostly only grow up to a meter long and weigh 100 kg max.

According to statistics, after the yellowfin tuna (kihada), mebachi is the second-largest catch of tuna type in the world, in terms of volume.

Mebachi is also the most used tuna type in making sashimi (thinly sliced raw fish). The smaller mebachi are sent to canned fish processing plants after the fishermen catch them.

In recent years, due to the spread of artificial fish aggregating devices (FAD), juvenile mebachi are caught in large quantities by large fishing boats that use encircling nets. This sparked debates on mebachi overfishing once again, and world governments might create new restrictions on fishing mebachi and other tuna species.

Merchants who trade in Japanese fish markets put a high price on raw mebachi, especially those that are caught in autumn off the Sanriku coast of the Tohoku region.

Also read: the 9 best sushi sauce recipes for extra flavor

4. Kihada (yellowfin tuna)

At birth, the kihada may look just like any other fish. But as it grows older, its second back fin and anal fin increase in length and become bright yellow, hence its name.

Its pectoral fin is also long. Plus, they can grow up to 2 meters in length and weigh as much as 200 kg.

Like their cousin, the mebachi, these fish are commonly found in areas between temperate and tropical zones around the world.

About 90% of the catch is accomplished via purse seine fishing. This can bring in quite a number of adult kihada, but lets the little ones free in order to maintain their population growth.

Before the restriction was placed for manufacturing canned tuna fish prior to the mid-1970s, the kihada was mainly used for that purpose, as well as other processed products.

The kihada was re-designated to become key ingredients in making sushi and sashimi after the tuna overfishing ban, all thanks to the spreading of quick-freezing facilities and high demand for it in Japanese restaurants.

Kihada is favored in areas west of Nagoya. In west Nagoya, Japan, the kihada is a favorite seafood and its red meat is refreshing and tasty, especially when the fish is caught during the spring and summer seasons.

5. Binnaga (albacore tuna)

The binnaga tuna is the smaller cousin of the other tuna fish previously mentioned. It grows to about 1 meter in length (maximum) and sports a unique very long pectoral fin.

The binnaga’s belly fat is called “bintoro,” which has a light acidic flavor but with a strong sweet taste to it.

The Japanese call this fish “bin”, which means “long hair on both sides of a human face”. Although most people call it “bincho” or simply just “long-haired [fish]”.

In some regions of Japan, it’s also referred to as “tonbo” (dragonfly), and this type of tuna often swims in tropical and temperate zones of the world’s oceans.

Its pale pink flesh is considered higher-grade compared to those of the bonito and kihada, and it’s also often used for canned fish manufacturing.

It’s also called the “sea chicken” or “white meat” sometimes, and its meat becomes even more tender when cooked. Because of that, it’s eaten as a fried dish or prepared with meuniere sauce.

Like the other tuna species on this list, the binnaga too was re-designated as a key sushi ingredient after the international ban on overfishing of tuna in Earth’s oceans back in the 1970s.

6. Koshinaga (longtail tuna)

The longtail tuna, or the “koshinaga” as the Japanese would call it, has a slim body compared to its cousins and has a particularly longer tail, which is what it got its name from. The longtail tuna has unique white spots on its belly that make it easier to identify it once caught. It also has red meat that tastes refreshing and delicious when prepared with various seafood recipes.

The koshinaga can be found cruising along the waters of Japan, Australia, and around the Indian Ocean. It’s the smallest among all species of tuna and it usually grows to 50 cm (0.5 meter) in length. It occasionally grows to 1 meter at times.

In Japan, the distribution volume of the fish is small, as it’s not subject to the major fishing industry. However, in the northern Kyushu and Sanin regions, koshinaga is a favorite seafood dish during autumn, as bonito is rarely caught in this part of Japan.

The koshinaga is prepared differently in various parts of the world. For example, in Australia, it’s eaten as steak or a fried dish, while in Indonesia, it’s used as an ingredient for curry or is sautéed.

What is sushi-grade tuna?

a plate of sashimi and vegetables with soy sauce and chopsticks next to it

Buying raw fish for your personal consumption can be a bit nerve-wracking, especially if this is the first time you’ll do it. It’s a costly hobby and you want to make sure that it’s safe to eat it, so here’s a quick-fix guide on how to spot and purchase sushi-grade tuna.

Technically, there are no official standards for “sushi-grade” tuna or fish, although stores may use this label to make their product look impressive to customers.

The only thing that you need to be careful with is parasitic fish, like salmon. You have to freeze the fish in order to eliminate all the parasites before you prepare it for consumption.

The flash-freezing technique is known to be the best method to preserve the tuna’s freshness and texture when it’s done properly immediately after it’s caught.

The label “sushi-grade” means that the tuna (or other fish types) is of the highest quality that the store or seller is offering, and the one they’re confident is good for raw consumption.

All tunas caught by the fishermen are brought to the Japanese fish market and are inspected, graded, and then auctioned by the wholesalers.

The ones deemed by the wholesalers as the best fish meat are given the highest grade, which is 1. They’re usually sold to sushi restaurants as sushi-grade tuna.

How to buy sushi-grade fish

It would do you well not to trust all fish meat as “sushi-grade”, as not all of them are as what they seem. Instead, do your homework and ask questions before making a purchase.

Here are some tips:

  1. Go to the right place – When you’re looking for the best fish meat to purchase, always go to a reputable fishmonger or market. Find someone who has knowledgeable staff, gets in regular shipments, and sells their entire inventory quickly.
  2. Choose sustainable – Each of us has a symbiotic relationship with this planet, including the animals. So if you want to contribute to healthy oceans, then be a responsible consumer. Do a little bit of research to gather information on endangered ocean species and only buy fish that aren’t on the Red List to preserve the population of those that are on that list. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch would be a good place to start.
  3. Ask the right questions – As a paying customer, you have every right to be properly educated and informed about the seafood products that you’re purchasing, so don’t hesitate to ask questions. Ask the wholesaler about where the fish came from, how it was handled, and how long it’s been there. If they process it in their store, then make sure to inquire if the equipment is sanitized to prevent cross-contamination from non-sushi-grade fish.
  4. Use your senses – Check the fish quality by using your sense of touch and smell. Keep in mind that the fish should always smell like the ocean and if it doesn’t, then that means it’s no longer fresh and good for consumption. Ensure that the fish isn’t soft or flaky, and it should have a vibrant color that’s very appealing to anyone’s eyes. If not, then skip your purchase and look for a better fish product elsewhere, as it isn’t good to consume raw tuna that’s no longer fresh.

You’ll have to make sure that you consume the fish as soon as it reaches your kitchen, as it’s a highly perishable item.

Then savor every bite of your sushi-grade fish, whether you use it in sushi, sashimi, ceviche, or crudo!

Tuna nutrition facts

Tuna is a great addition to your diet since it’s not only affordable, but it’s also a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, protein, selenium, and vitamin D.

It’s true that canned tuna alternatives lack the nutritional value that fresh tuna has. However, canned tuna’s easier to prepare and isn’t easily perishable.

The bigeye, yellowfin, and bluefin tunas are commonly sold as frozen meat for sushi restaurants and other high-end bidders, while the albacore and skipjack tuna are primarily used for canned fish production.

Here’s the USDA’s nutrition information on tuna meat:

Based on this report, we now know that tuna has very low carbohydrates and also has a minuscule amount of fiber or sugar.

Having said that, you may want to supplement your meals with other foods that’ll make up for what tuna lacks, as it may be less filling on its own than other fish.

Also read: this is the sushi eel, did you taste it?

Fat in tuna

Tuna has a very low-fat content. In fact, it only has 2% of the overall fat in the American Heart Association (AHA) recommended daily allowance (RDA), which is 3.5 oz (3/4 cup). Yet it contains a good amount of omega-3 fatty acids.

Different varieties of tuna have been found to contain varying amounts of fat. Here are the different tuna types based on their fat content from most to least fatty: fresh bluefin tuna, canned white albacore tuna, canned light tuna, fresh skipjack tuna, and fresh yellowfin tuna.

Protein in tuna

Tuna meat has 5 grams of protein for every ounce of it, which makes it a good source of this nutrient aside from other types of meat like poultry, pork, or beef.

Normally, a can of tuna contains at least 5 ounces of fish meat, which should give you around 50% of the total RDA for protein in your diet.

Micronutrients in tuna

Consuming at least 2 ounces of tuna meat will supply about 6% of the RDA for vitamin D and vitamin B6, 15% for vitamin B12, and 4% for iron.

Vitamin D is important for your immune system to function. Meanwhile, the B-vitamins and iron help keep cellular function optimal by releasing and transporting energy from cell to cell.

Health benefits

The tuna fish species have good omega-3 fatty acids that help keep your heart in good health.

The way these good cholesterols work is that they help decrease the triglycerides in the blood, prevent the risk of developing irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia), and reduce plaque buildup in the arteries.

The 2 predominant omega-3 fatty acids found in tuna are:

Another health benefit you’ll get from eating tuna is getting a good amount of selenium. 2 ounces of tuna also gets you a whopping 60% of your daily recommended amount of selenium.

This nutrient is important in reproductive and thyroid health. It also aids in protecting your body from oxidative damage.

Get yourself sushi-grade tuna for amazing creations

After reading this article, you now know all about the different types of tuna and how to source sushi-grade versions to create sushi and sashimi dishes. Make sure you do your due diligence and buy not just sushi-grade tuna, but also that you get it from a sustainable source. You’ll be doing your part in looking after the world while still munching on tasty sushi dishes!

Read more: what is teppanyaki exactly and how do I make it?

Ever had trouble finding Japanese recipes that were easy to make?

We now have "cooking Japanese with ease", our full recipe book and video course with step-by-step tutorials on your favorite recipes.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.