Japanese sea bream, known as tai or madai in Japanese, is one of Japan’s most popular fish. Like many other species of sea bream around the world, it is prized for its taste, whether it is sliced raw for sashimi, grilled over a charcoal fire, or poached and served whole. In Japan tai is considered a lucky fish because its name rhymes with medetai, meaning “auspicious.” It is often featured at the New Year, at weddings, and at other celebrations, and is considered to especially bestow good fortune when it brought to the table whole because of its appealing shape.
Thanks to this provenance, tai has become an auspicious symbol in itself. Ebisu, one of Japan’s Shichifukujin or Seven Gods of Good Fortune, and the god of fishermen, luck, and working people, is often depicted holding a tai.
Tai swim in the waters around all the Japanese islands. During the months of March and April tai move into coastal waters to spawn. At that time the skin of the fish turns red, and they are considered to have an especially good taste. During these months, which is also when cherry trees bloom in Japan, the fish are sometimes referred to as “cherry blossom tai.”
Tai became particularly popular in Japan during the Tokugawa period when salt water fish was first served raw instead of being salted and dried. This coincided with the introduction of commercial prepared soy sauce. That was when Japanese diners discovered that soy sauce enhanced the flavor of raw tai, at least according to the Kikkoman Corporation, one of Japan’s leading brewers of soy sauce.(1) So it may be that tai was one of the first varieties of sashimi. Unfortunately tai is only readily available in Japan; red snapper is its’ closest equivalent in other parts of the globe.
(1) http://www.kikkoman.com/foodforum/thejapanesetablebackissues/12.shtml, downloaded January 11, 2014.