Tuna on Top: Japan’s Favorite Sushi Varieties

by Ella

Tuna, known as “maguro” in Japanese, holds a special place in the world of sushi. Revered for its rich flavor and buttery texture, tuna has become a staple in sushi restaurants worldwide. This article explores the different varieties of tuna used in sushi, their preparation methods, and their cultural significance in Japan. We’ll delve into popular sushi types featuring tuna, offering a comprehensive guide to this beloved seafood delicacy.

The Significance of Tuna in Japanese Cuisine

Historical Context

Tuna has been a part of Japanese cuisine for centuries. In the Edo period (1603-1868), tuna was not as highly regarded as it is today. It was considered a food for the common people and was often pickled or salted. However, the development of refrigeration and advances in fishing techniques in the 20th century allowed for the transportation of fresh tuna, elevating its status in the culinary world.


Cultural Importance

In Japan, tuna is more than just a popular ingredient; it symbolizes good fortune and prosperity. The Japanese New Year is celebrated with various tuna dishes, reflecting the fish’s auspicious connotations. Tuna auctions, especially at Tokyo’s Tsukiji and Toyosu markets, are major events, attracting global attention and highlighting the cultural and economic importance of this fish.


Varieties of Tuna

Tuna comes in several varieties, each with unique flavors and textures. The most common types used in sushi are:


Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus thynnus): Known for its rich flavor and high-fat content, bluefin tuna is the most prized variety.


Yellowfin Tuna (Thunnus albacares): This type has a lighter flavor and is often used for sashimi and sushi rolls.

Bigeye Tuna (Thunnus obesus): Similar to bluefin but with a slightly different texture, bigeye is also highly valued.

Albacore Tuna (Thunnus alalunga): Known for its mild flavor, albacore is less fatty and is often used in different sushi preparations.

Popular Tuna Sushi Varieties

Maguro (Lean Tuna)

Maguro refers to the lean part of the tuna, typically taken from the sides of the fish. It has a deep red color and a firm texture, making it a favorite for many sushi lovers.

Preparation and Serving

Maguro is often served as nigiri, a slice of tuna placed atop a small bed of vinegared rice. It can also be enjoyed as sashimi, where thin slices of raw tuna are served without rice. The simplicity of these preparations allows the pure flavor of the tuna to shine.

Toro (Fatty Tuna)

Toro is the fatty part of the tuna, known for its melt-in-the-mouth texture. It is divided into two categories: chutoro (medium fatty tuna) and otoro (extra fatty tuna).


Chutoro is taken from the belly of the tuna and is prized for its balance of flavor and fat. It has a marbled appearance and a rich, creamy taste.


Otoro is the most luxurious part of the tuna, taken from the underbelly. It is incredibly fatty and soft, often described as “buttery.” Due to its high-fat content, otoro is highly sought after and commands a premium price.

Tekka Maki (Tuna Roll)

Tekka Maki is a simple yet popular sushi roll that features tuna as its main ingredient. It consists of a strip of tuna rolled with vinegared rice and wrapped in nori (seaweed).

Ingredients and Preparation

To prepare Tekka Maki, you will need:

  • Fresh tuna (maguro)
  • Sushi rice
  • Nori sheets
  • Soy sauce (for dipping)
  • Wasabi (optional)

The preparation involves spreading a layer of sushi rice on a nori sheet, placing a strip of tuna in the center, and rolling it tightly. The roll is then sliced into bite-sized pieces.

Negitoro (Minced Tuna with Green Onions)

Negitoro is made from minced fatty tuna mixed with finely chopped green onions. This combination is known for its creamy texture and savory flavor.

Serving Suggestions

Negitoro can be served as a topping for sushi rice (gunkan maki) or used as a filling for hand rolls (temaki). It can also be enjoyed as a donburi (rice bowl), where the minced tuna is served over a bed of rice.

Spicy Tuna Roll

A popular adaptation in Western sushi cuisine, the Spicy Tuna Roll features a mixture of diced tuna, spicy mayo, and sometimes additional ingredients like cucumber or avocado.

Ingredients and Preparation

To make a Spicy Tuna Roll, you will need:

  • Fresh tuna (diced)
  • Spicy mayo (mayonnaise mixed with sriracha)
  • Sushi rice
  • Nori sheets
  • Optional ingredients: cucumber, avocado

The diced tuna is mixed with spicy mayo and placed on a layer of sushi rice spread on a nori sheet. Additional ingredients like cucumber or avocado can be added for extra flavor and texture. The roll is then tightly rolled and sliced into pieces.

Techniques for Preparing Tuna Sushi

Selecting Fresh Tuna

The quality of tuna used in sushi is paramount. When selecting tuna, look for the following characteristics:

Color: Fresh tuna should have a vibrant red color for lean cuts and a pinkish hue for fatty cuts.

Texture: The flesh should be firm and smooth, without any mushiness or discoloration.

Smell: Fresh tuna should have a clean, oceanic smell. Avoid any fish with a strong or unpleasant odor.

Cutting Techniques

Proper cutting techniques are essential to ensure the best texture and presentation of tuna in sushi. Here are some key tips:

Sashimi Cut: For sashimi, use a sharp knife to cut thin, even slices across the grain of the fish. This helps maintain a tender texture.

Nigiri Cut: For nigiri, cut slightly thicker slices, about 1/4 inch, ensuring they are uniform in size to sit perfectly on the rice.

Chopping for Negitoro: When preparing negitoro, finely chop the fatty tuna until it reaches a smooth, minced consistency.

Sushi Rice Preparation

The quality of the sushi rice is as important as the fish itself. Here’s a basic method to prepare sushi rice:

Ingredients: Short-grain sushi rice, rice vinegar, sugar, and salt.

Method: Cook the rice according to the package instructions. Once cooked, transfer the rice to a large bowl. Mix rice vinegar, sugar, and salt in a small bowl until dissolved, then gradually fold the mixture into the rice, ensuring each grain is coated. Let the rice cool to room temperature before using.

Assembling Nigiri Sushi

Nigiri sushi consists of a slice of tuna atop a small bed of vinegared rice. Here’s how to assemble it:

Forming the Rice: Wet your hands with a mixture of water and vinegar to prevent sticking. Take a small amount of sushi rice and shape it into an oblong mound.

Adding the Tuna: Place a slice of tuna over the rice, gently pressing down to adhere.

Finishing Touches: Optionally, brush a small amount of soy sauce on the fish or add a touch of wasabi between the fish and rice.

Tuna Sushi in Japanese Culture

Tuna Auctions

One of the most fascinating aspects of Japan’s tuna culture is the tuna auctions held at markets like Tsukiji and Toyosu. These auctions attract bidders from all over the world, with prices for premium tuna reaching astonishing levels. The auctions are a blend of tradition, commerce, and spectacle, reflecting the high regard for tuna in Japanese cuisine.

Seasonal Variations

In Japan, the availability and quality of tuna can vary with the seasons. Winter is often considered the best time for tuna, as the colder waters result in fattier and more flavorful fish. Seasonal variations influence sushi menus, with chefs selecting the best tuna available to ensure optimal taste and quality.

Sushi Etiquette

When enjoying tuna sushi in Japan, there are several etiquette guidelines to follow:

Eating Order: Start with lighter, leaner cuts like maguro before progressing to richer cuts like chutoro and otoro.

Soy Sauce: Dip the fish side of the nigiri, not the rice side, into the soy sauce to avoid overpowering the flavor.

Wasabi: If the sushi is already seasoned with wasabi, additional wasabi may not be necessary.

Chopsticks or Hands: Nigiri sushi can be eaten with chopsticks or with your hands, whichever you prefer.

Modern Interpretations and Global Influence

Tuna Sushi in Western Cuisine

Tuna sushi has made a significant impact on Western cuisine, leading to creative adaptations and new sushi varieties. The Spicy Tuna Roll, for example, is a fusion creation that combines traditional Japanese elements with Western flavors.

Innovative Sushi Chefs

Chefs around the world are constantly experimenting with tuna sushi, incorporating diverse ingredients and techniques. From tuna tartare sushi to seared tuna nigiri, modern interpretations continue to evolve, blending tradition with innovation.

Sustainability Concerns

As the popularity of tuna continues to grow, so do concerns about overfishing and sustainability. Efforts are being made to promote sustainable fishing practices and protect tuna populations. Consumers and chefs alike are becoming more conscientious about sourcing tuna responsibly.

See Also: 10 Canned Tuna Highest in Protein


Tuna holds an esteemed place in Japanese cuisine, celebrated for its rich flavor, versatility, and cultural significance. From the lean cuts of maguro to the luxurious otoro, tuna offers a range of tastes and textures that delight sushi enthusiasts around the world. By understanding the different varieties of tuna, mastering preparation techniques, and appreciating the cultural context, you can fully enjoy and respect this remarkable seafood delicacy. As tuna sushi continues to evolve and influence global cuisine, its legacy as a symbol of Japanese culinary artistry remains firmly rooted.



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