Seasoned with salt and baked till crisp on the skin and juicy inside, this Japanese Baked Sea Bream is often served on celebratory occasions, including Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year). The whole fish will make a stunning centerpiece of your feast. I’ll show you how to cook it perfectly every time!
In Japan, sea bream, or Madai, is often served whole on New Year’s Day, wedding ceremonies, and other auspicious occasions. I like to present my New Year tabletop with this whole baked sea bream along with multi-layers of Osechi boxes. Not only it looks splendid (like a big turkey on Thanksgiving or ham on Christmas), but it also serves the crowd like a good luck charm.
Why Japanese Eat Sea Bream for Special Occasions?
Sea bream (or Tai) has long been used in celebrations in Japan to bring good luck. The shiny red color of sea bream and the whole fish shape fit well for the celebratory occasion.
What’s more, the word ‘happy’ in Japanese is Medetai (めでたい), which includes the word ‘tai’ rhyming with the fish name ‘tai’. You may also recognize another sea bream (Tai)…
Yes, the delicious sea bream-shaped waffle sweets called Taiyaki (鯛焼き). You now understand sea bream is an important symbol in Japanese culture.
The cost of the whole fish is expensive, which is why we only reserve it for special occasions.
What Kind of Fish Is Sea Bream?
When the Japanese talk about Tai, it refers to red sea bream (Pagrus major) or Madai (真鯛), which are in the family of Sparidae (bream). It is a popular fish in Asia including Korea and Taiwan.
The name Tai could be a bit ambiguous because it is often mislabeled or substituted by other fish in sushi restaurants or fish markets. Similar fish that are used as substitutions include squirefish and tilapia. It can get even more confusing as there are over a hundred fish that ends in “tai” in Japanese.
Tai is also often incorrectly called a red snapper. The story has it that British navigator Captain James Cook (18th century) had given the fish its name since it resembles the American red snapper. However, the actual red snapper is quite different from red sea bream.
Where to Find Sea Bream?
Your local Japanese grocery store should carry this fish especially toward the end of December.
If you are from the local Bay Area, I purchased my sea bream from the Suruki Supermarket in San Mateo. Call ahead and make sure they have it in stock. I got a 3-lb sea bream for this recipe ($30 each), but you can always ask for the specific sizes and their availability.
I’ve also seen this fish sold in Whole Foods and Drager’s in San Mateo. It’s definitely worth checking with your local specialty grocers that offer a great selection of seafood.
Overview: How to Make Japanese Baked Sea Bream
The full printable/written recipe with step-by-step pictures is below.
- Rinse the fish and pat dry (When you’re at the store, ask the fishmonger to clean the scales, gut the fish, and remove its internal organs).
- Season the fish with salt, let sit for 30 minutes, and pat dry.
- Score the fish, coat the fins and tail with salt, and cover them with aluminum foil.
- Bake at 425ºF (220ºC) for 40-45 minutes (for a 3-lb fish).
- Serve and enjoy!
5 Must-Do Tricks for Japanese Baked Sea Bream
1. Season with salt and let stand for 30 minutes.
Seasoning salt over the whole fish and leaving it for a while prior to cooking is important because it:
- Tightens the flesh (improve texture) – The salt concentration near the surface of the fish becomes high, and the water in the fish is drawn to the surface by the action of osmotic pressure to dilute it. When the water inside comes out, the body/flesh becomes tight.
- Removes unwanted smell – Since the moisture from the fish also contains a fishy odor, you can also get rid of it.
- Seals in the good flavors – Salt helps to seal in all the food flavors by hardening the surface. Fish contains proteins called albumin and globulin. These have the property of coagulating when heated, and the salt has the function of promoting its action.
It’s important to sprinkle salt 20 to 30 minutes before cooking. Do not leave it for more than 30 minutes as umami from the fish will start to escape. Make sure to pat dry the surface with a paper towel to remove the smelly fish odor/moisture before baking.
2. Score fish.
Scoring the fish means slashing across the thickest part of the flesh. The most common way is to make diagonal slashes, but in Japan, we often score an “X”. But why do we score fish? Here are two reasons:
- Even cooking – A whole fish has an uneven thickness. Therefore, scoring the thickest part of the flesh allows the heat to reach the inside easily and cooks evenly with the rest of the fish.
- Creates steam vents – If you don’t score the skin, the moisture inside the fish gets hot and turns into steam. Steam needs to escape, otherwise, the flesh and skin will burst open.
In Japan, the fish must be served with its head pointing left. The front side with an “X” (Jumonji 十文字) score is called Kazari-bocho (飾り包丁) and the slash(es) on the back is called Kakushi-bocho (隠し包丁). The direct translation would be “decorative knife (cut)” on the front and “hidden knife (cut)” on the back.
How deep the slashes do we need? The depth of slashes is usually midway between the skin and the bone, just enough to opening up the flesh for the heat to get through more efficiently.
3. Coat the fins and tail with salt.
When the whole fish is served, we also include the fins and tail. As they can be easily burnt in the hot oven or on the grill over an open fire, you want to cover the fins and tail with salt. In Japanese, this technique is called Keshojio (化粧塩), the direct translation would be ‘cosmetic/makeup salt’. Salt is pressed down on the fins and tail to be fully coated so it prevents them from burning.
In my recipe, I also show you the additional step on how you can protect the fins and tail even more. If you are going to broil or grill the fish over direct heat, covering the fins and tail with aluminum foil will definitely protect them well.
4. Make the fish look “alive”.
For a special occasion, we purposely cook the fish so that the fish looks alive. Two metal skewers are inserted from the fish’s head and tail. This technique of inserting metal skewers is called Kushiuchi (串打ち) and making the fish look ‘wavy’ is called Odori-kushi (踊り串) – dancing skewer – as the fish looks like it’s swimming or dancing (See how the fish is prepared in Japan for the New Years).
Assuming we don’t have metal skewers handy, I’ll show my method how to keep the fish look alive by making it concaved/curved with a regular bamboo skewer and oven-safe ramekins.
5. No more guessing: Use the probe thermometer to bake.
Just like baking a whole chicken in the oven, it’s important to stop cooking right when the fish is cooked through. Overcooked fish can be dry and does not have a juicy texture. If you use a probe thermometer in your oven, there is absolutely no guessing involved. The oven probe (or portable probe thermometer) will tell you when the thickest part of the fish is cooked through. You don’t have to keep opening the oven door and check if the fish is cooked through.
My oven can set up a probe thermometer (which means the oven will beep at 145ºF (63ºC) – the internal safe temperature for fish). If you don’t have the oven probe mode, you can always buy Thermoworks ChefAlarm which does the same thing.
Serving a Whole Sea Bream
The image of a whole fish, including head, eyes, and fins, served on the table looks just fine to me as I grew up in Japan. But to some people, this may be a strange scene and could even be off-putting.
As I like to share the real Japanese cuisine, just the way the Japanese eat in Japan, I wanted to present you with the traditional way of serving this dish.
Serving a whole fish is considered lavish and bountiful, which is the perfect opportunity to present the extravagance on happy occasions. In fact, we have a special word for the ‘whole fish’ called Okashiratsuki (尾頭付き; tail and head attached) or Sugatayaki (姿焼き; grilled as a whole), which implies a special, expensive meal.
Next time when you’re in Japan and see the whole fish served on the table, you would know it is a special meal prepared for you.
How to Decorate the Fish for Special Occasions
If you like to decorate the whole fish for your special occasions, here are some ideas you can do.
- A large platter: A ceramic platter, a wooden and lacquered tray, or a bamboo basket can be used for serving the sea bream.
- A paper or Shikigami (敷き紙): On a celebration, a red and white paper is often used in Japan. If you have a tempura paper or origami, that works too! Traditionally, the paper is folded in certain ways. Please note that the folding direction is the opposite for celebration and condolence. In the case of a celebration, fold the lower left to the upper right with the backside facing up.
- Green leaves: Food looks tastier with something green on a plate. You can use pine needles, Nandina or heavenly bamboo, bamboo leaves, chrysanthemum leaves, or maple leaves. Any leaf would work just fine.
- Accessories: You can make it festive by adding decorative accessories. I added a Mizuhiki crane and a plastic New Year decoration I had in my kitchen.
What To Do With Leftover Fish
A great way to re-use the cooked bone and some leftover meat is to make Sea Bream Rice called Tai Meshi (鯛飯).
Don’t waste any bits of this expensive fish. This Sea Bream Rice is really delicious, and it’s very easy to make in a Donabe (Japanese earthenware pot), a Dutch oven, or a rice cooker. Hope you make two nice meals out of one fish!
Japanese Ingredient Substitution: If you want to look for substitutes for Japanese condiments and ingredients, click here.
Japanese Baked Sea Bream
- 1 red sea bream (madai 真鯛; this is a 3-lb, 17-inch-long fish; after gutted, 2.8 lb)
- 1 ½ tsp kosher/sea salt (I use Diamond Crystal; use half for table salt) (You’ll need ½ tsp salt per pound)
- 2 Tbsp kosher/sea salt (I use Diamond Crystal; use half for table salt) (for sprinkling fins and tail)
- Gather all the ingredients.
To Prepare the Fish
- Rinse the fish, both inside and outside, under cold water. Pat dry with paper towels.
- Sprinkle salt all over the fish and inside the fish. Why salting? Please read the blog post on why salting is important. Let stand for 30 minutes on the kitchen counter.
- After 30 minutes, preheat the oven to 425ºF (220ºC). For a convection oven, reduce cooking temperature by 25ºF (15ºC). Pat dry all the moisture oozed out from the fish with paper towels.
- Score the thickest part of the flesh. Score an X on the front (fish head pointing left). Make 2-3 slashes on the back (fish head pointing right). The depth of slashes is usually midway between the skin and the bone, just enough to opening up the flesh for the heat to get through the flesh more efficiently. Read more about it in the blog post.
- Coat the fins (3 locations) and tail with salt to prevent them from burning. Spread them when sprinkling salt and press down with fingers.
- Find a pointy object like an ice pick (I use a takoyaki pick), make a puncture near the tail so a bamboo skewer can go through (Unfortunately, a bamboo skewer is not strong enough to puncture through the fish).
- Insert the bamboo skewer through the hole in the tail then puncture through the upper eyes.
- Cover the tail and fins with aluminum foil.
- Put the foil-wrapped pectoral fin on the bamboo so that it will stand up after being baked.
- Place the fish on the wire rack (so the air would go through underneath the fish). Put the oven-safe ramekins to support the head and tail.
- Here’s the closer look.
- Insert the oven probe into the thickest part of the flesh (through the score). Transfer the baking sheet to the oven and attach the probe to the oven.
- Bake the fish at 425ºF (220ºC) until the thickest part of the fish registers 145°F (63°C) on the oven meat probe or on an instant-read thermometer, about 40-45 minutes (for a 3-lb fish).
- Remove from the oven. Take out the skewer and the aluminum foil (be careful as the fins and tail may be stuck to the foil). Decorate the fish (read the blog post for some ideas) and serve immediately.
- You can store the leftover in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
To Use Leftover Fish (Bone and Flesh)
- Make Tai Meshi (Sea Bream Rice) following my recipe.