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Product Spotlight: Yellowtail

Whether premium Japanese-farmed hamachi or wild-caught jack, this fish is in high demand

Rick Ramseyer
April 01, 2005

Sushi and sashimi enthusiasts have long craved yellowtail, a tuna-like fish renowned for its rich, buttery flavor. Indeed, yellowtail is a raw staple on sushi menus in restaurants and supermarkets coast to coast, and it’s increasingly popular as a roasted, grilled or braised selection at seafood dinnerhouses.

Yellowtail is the common name for several species of amberjack. The highest-value variety, Seriola quinqueradiata, known as hama­chi in sushi bars, is farmed in Japan and prized for sashimi worldwide.

“Hamachi is a must-have sushi item,” says David Chi, a salesman for Ocean Blue Products, a seafood importer and trader in Los Angeles.

“The fat content gives it a taste that melts in your mouth.”

Another yellowtail species, S. lalandei, is farmed in Mexico and Australia and caught wild off Southern California, Mexico’s west coast and New Zealand.

In general, wild yellowtail has a lower fat content and darker meat than farmed fish, so is considered less suitable for sashimi.

“They are two totally distinct markets that don’t cross at all, from our perspective,” says Bob Fram, president of Garden & Valley Isle Seafood, a Honolulu-based distributor that handles both farmed and wild yellowtail.

Garden & Valley receives two shipments of hamachi each week from Japan, where the fish is raised in cages in the Inland Sea and harvested at approximately 15 to 20 pounds.

As of early February, the company’s prices for sushi-grade yellowtail were around $9 per pound headed and gutted and $11 to $12 per pound for fillets.

“It’s a very upscale fish — the pinnacle of that product,” says Fram, noting that Japanese hamachi accounts for roughly 2 percent of the company’s sales.

“It’s always been a favorite in the sushi bars, and we’ve seen steady growth.”

Wild yellowtail, which Garden & Valley receives from New Zealand and Mexico, can comprise up to 10 percent of sales, “but it probably averages less than that, because we go a lot of weeks without it,” Fram says. “There are just too many other fish, like mahi or oho, that are better known.”

Still, wild yellowtail — priced in the $4 range per pound (H&G) and $5 to $6 per pound for fillets — is “doing well, since more and more restaurants are putting it on the grill or sauté menu, especially on the West Coast,” Fram adds.

Catalina Offshore Products, a seafood importer and exporter in San Diego, carries some farmed hamachi, but the vast majority of its yellowtail business stems from fish caught off Southern California and Mexico.

“Right now there are 4,000 pounds of wild yellowtail in my cooler,” says Dan Nattrass, Catalina’s purchasing and sales manager. “For farmed product, over a three-month period, we might take 3,000 pounds or so. But we might get that much in a day in wild yellowtail; certainly within a week we’d have that much.”

Wholesale prices early this year ranged from around $1.25 to $1.75 per pound (whole fish) for wild yellowtail and $1.95 to $2.25 for what the company calls “sushi/sashimi grade” product that’s nonetheless primarily used for sautéing, grilling or other cooking applications, Nattrass says.

U.S. restaurateurs are well aware of yellowtail’s versatility, of course. But for sushi specialists, the focus remains on premium-quality raw fish.

“Hamachi is one of our most popular items because of the flavor,” says Akira Komine, owner of Kirala Japanese Restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., which receives eight refrigerated, vacuum-packed fillets from Japan each week. “The meat is tender and not fishy and almost a white-looking color. It’s very mild and buttery.”

Hamachi, in fact, is among Kirala’s four top sushi sellers, along with tuna, nagi and salmon. “So it’s about 20 percent of sales,” Komine says.

Ken Yamamoto, owner and chef of Shiki Japanese Restaurant in Seattle, estimates that ha­machi, priced at $4.50 for two pieces, ranks only behind salmon and albacore as a customer favorite.

“Ninety-nine percent of what we get is farm-raised from Japan,” Yamamoto says.

Japanese hamachi is also touted at Hatsuhana, which has two sushi restaurants in New York. Among the offerings at the East 48th Street location in Midtown Manhattan are a sashimi entrée ($23) that includes three yellowtail slices; a spicy yellowtail roll ($5.75) for takeout; and, for diners preferring cooked fare, roasted yellowtail collar ($9.50).

Yellowtail isn’t just a crowd-pleaser in restaurants. It’s also a burgeoning part of the sushi lineup at supermarkets nationwide.

Wild Oats Markets, a 78-store chain with headquarters in Boulder, Colo., lists yellowtail as one the three best-selling sushi choices at its locations in 23 states, according to spokesperson Sonja Tuitele.

Wild Oats uses wild-caught product from the Pacific, Tuitele says, and features menu options such as a 6-ounce spicy yellowtail roll ($5.25) and a 7-ounce nigiri ($9.45) that includes two yellowtail pieces.

Moreover, the company, which has incorporated a six-seat sushi bar in its new prototype in Superior, Colo., has on-premise sushi chefs who make fresh fare throughout the day.

“So you can get custom-made items,” Tuitele says. “If you wanted a special roll with hamachi and negi (green onion), we could do that.”

Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer, a family-owned supermarket chain, provides sushi at 70 of its 160-plus stores in the Midwest. At its higher-volume locations, Meijer typically has about two-dozen different sushi selections, including yellowtail.

“Mixed sushi is probably the most popular when it comes to raw fish, with yellowtail being one of those offerings,” says Ray Bozzacco, Meijer’s vice president of meat and seafood.

Even grocery-retail giant Kro­ger offers yellowtail among the options at more than 600 sushi-stocked stores.

“It’s definitely something we’ve made available in our sushi shops,” says a Kroger representative in Cincinnati.

All told, seafood stakeholders say interest in yellowtail continues to rise, spurred not only by the raw appeal of sushi and sashimi, but by demand for new varieties of cooked appetizers and
entrées.

“If people are looking for a mild whitefish, [yellowtail] seems to fit a blend of a jack-type trevali and a mahimahi,” says Fram of Garden & Valley Isle Seafood.

“It’s a good fish.”

Find other SeaFood Business articles with yellowtail here.

April 2012 - SeaFood Business

 

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