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In the island nation of Japan, seafood is a natural staple in the local cuisine. However, some types of seafood are more beloved than others. To the Japanese, only the rarest, sweetest species of fish, such as kinki, can be considered delicacies.
So what is kinki? The kinki, or channel rockfish, is a deep sea-dwelling fish in the Scorpaenidae family. It has a very high fat content, which makes the flesh especially sweet and tender.
Unfortunately, the flavor isn’t the only reason kinki is so popular in Japan. It’s a rare species of fish with a relatively short fishing season. Before kinki arrives at the table on a plate, it’s called kichiji, which is the formal name of this delicious and fascinating fish.
All About Kichiji
Like most subtypes of rockfish, kichiji are a bottom-dwelling species, spending most of the year at depths of 600-1,600 feet underwater. They come closer to the surface during spawning season, which happens between May and July. This coincides with the kichiji fishing season in Japan.
Mature kichiji can grow to measure just under three feet in length. The largest kichiji ever recorded was caught off of the coast of Alaska in 2015, weighing in at 8 lbs 4 oz. Their lifespan can be anywhere between 80-100 years, making them one of the longest-living fish species in our oceans.
Healthy specimens of kichiji have huge eyes, elongated bodies, and large heads. They also have a spiny ridge with 15 or 16 individual spines rather than the typical dorsal fin. Because of this, they are known in America as the “shortspine thornyhead” fish.
Kichiji coloring can vary from shades of orange to red. Their diets rely heavily on shrimp, which contain high amounts of astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant pigment found in shrimp, crab, salmon, and lobster, and it’s the component that gives kichiji scales their vibrant, reddish hue.
Kichiji are found throughout the northern Pacific Ocean. They can be caught in coastal waters near Alaska as well as Hokkaido. In Japan, kinki is such a popular food that the country sources its kichiji from all over the world.
Kichiji make their homes in the lower levels of the sea, where they feed on shrimp and other small invertebrates. While spending most of their time motionless, they can defend themselves from above with their dorsal spines, which are venomous to small animals but not humans. The spines are sharp enough to cause injury, so diners should exercise caution if they are served a whole kinki fish.
When they’re feeling comfortable and unthreatened, kichiji like to hang out with their mouths open. Along with their bulbous heads and oversized eyes, this makes kichiji look like cartoon simpletons. That might be the reasoning behind their other name—the idiot fish!
Fishing for Kichiji
The majority of the world’s fish are caught by commercial fishing vessels, which utilizes trawling or dragnet fishing. However, kichiji caught in this manner are usually more damaged, less beautiful, and less tasty. To the Japanese, kichiji caught via dragnet are merely acceptable, but they don’t hold a candle to the perfection of a kichiji caught with a single hook.
In Hokkaido, which supplies over half of Japan’s kinki meat, kichiji are caught by teams of specially-trained fishermen who use long-line fishing during the short spawning season. Kichiji caught this way have intact scales, clear eyes, and sweeter meat, and they will be priced accordingly to reflect their superior quality.
Japan limits the amount of kichiji that can be caught by each fisherman. Kichiji that were harvested using the long-line method will bear a special marking or seal once they hit market shelves. This tells the customer that they are purchasing a genuine, long-line caught fish.
Kinki as Food
Once a kichiji is caught with the intention of eating it, it’s referred to as “kinki.” Kinki meat is prized for its superior flavor. Its intense sweetness and oiliness make it an especially tasty accompaniment to sake.
Kinki is also hard to find, so discovering that a restaurant has kinki on the menu is an exciting treat for many Japanese people. Due to its endangered status, there’s a global limit on the amount of available kinki at any given time. In spite of this, Japan loves kinki so much that the nation has consistently been the number one buyer of the world’s entire stock of kinki.
What Kinki Looks Like
Raw kinki meat looks pale pink to white in color with a smooth, firm texture. The flesh has a darker layer of fat directly under the skin, which stays dark and is gelatinous rather than flaky when cooked. Cooked kinki is completely white and possesses a flaky, melt-in-your mouth texture that’s similar to butter.
What Kinki Tastes Like
Most of kinki’s flavor comes from its very high fat content. Many people have likened it to very oily toro, cod, or snapper, describing it as the richer, juicier version of its less-delicious cousins. Japanese cooks prefer to prepare kinki with simple ingredients in order to showcase its flavor to the fullest extent.
How to Prepare Kinki
In Japan, kinki is usually cooked on the bone, which keeps the delicate flesh from falling apart during the cooking process. One of the most popular ways to cook kinki is by simmering the meat in soy sauce and Mirin. Smaller specimens of kinki can be fried whole so the skin can become crispy while the meat stays juicy inside. Very fresh kinki can be enjoyed as sashimi, with the slices kept thick to give chopsticks something to grip onto.
Due to its fragile texture, kinki is a good protein choice for stewing. The Japanese enjoy kinki especially in the winter, when they can add it to their nabe along with ginger and other vegetables for a hearty, one-pot stew.
Kinki Nutritional Benefits
Like other types of fish, kinki is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are beneficial for decreasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. It’s also a good source of vitamins D, which regulates calcium and phosphorous in the blood, and riboflavin, which is important for cell and tissue function. Along with these benefits, fish is also a good, low-calorie source of protein.
Kinki in particular contains high amounts of selenium. Selenium is a mineral that has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. While humans don’t need a lot of selenium compared to other micronutrients, consuming enough selenium is vital for metabolism health.
Although delicious and decadent, kinki is one of the more controversial categories of seafood. Not only is it endangered, it is very expensive and easily imitated. Kinki has also shared extra scrutiny, along with sushi and sashimi, thanks to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Japanese Seafood and Radioactivity
Because the Fukushima nuclear reactor was situated in a coastal area, some of the radiation is believed to have leaked into the sea. This has caused many people outside of Japan to feel apprehensive about consuming Japanese seafood. In spite of popular opinion, most of the apprehension is unnecessary.
Scientists agree that the radiation levels experienced after the Fukushima disaster are miniscule compared to the scale of the Pacific Ocean. The levels today are also much lower than in 2011, when the disaster occurred. In fact, the radiation levels in seafood are so low that a healthy adult could consume every fish in the Pacific and die of overeating before experiencing the first symptom of radiation poisoning.
There are everyday things that expose us to more radiation than fish, like brick buildings, airports, and even bananas! Also, Japan has had some of the strictest food safety standards in the world, which became even stricter after the disaster. With all that in mind, it’s safe to say that kinki is harmless to eat and poses no threat to our health.
Currently, the kichiji is classified as an endangered species. Their numbers have dwindled due to overfishing, but it’s still legal to catch kichiji in the wild under certain conditions. Depending on the country, kichiji can only be caught in specific areas and seasons, and there are limits on how many fish can be harvested per trip.
Kinki is expensive for two reasons: flavor and scarcity. As an endangered species, kichiji may be well on its way to being eaten to extinction like the dodo or passenger pigeon, two species that were butchered out of existence for their delicious meat. Kinki has always been a luxury item priced outside the reach of the working class, and it’s unlikely to become cheaper anytime soon.
There are over 70 species of fish that are spiny, bottom-dwelling, and possess vibrant red scales. Therefore, there are just as many fish that can be confused for kichiji. These other fish may be tasty, but only authentic kinki has the premium flavor worthy of the premium price.
In general, kinki is very hard to find outside of Japan. Kinki is also known to be a difficult item to pass through customs, and this scarcity is often reflected in the cost of kinki. In general, if you are at a restaurant and see kinki on the menu for a reasonable price, it’s probably not real kinki!
What’s the best way to cook kinki?
Kinki doesn’t have a lot of meat, so it’s not the best fish for cutting filets. It’s best cooked on the bone with the skin on to keep the meat as whole as possible. Therefore, kinki is best stewed, braised, or fried whole, with seasonings that will enhance its sweetness and umami profile
What side dishes go with kinki?
On its own, kinki pairs well with rice, wheat noodles, and mild, clear broths. Vegetables served alongside kinki include green beans, mushrooms, asparagus, and daikon. Because kinki is so rich and decadent, it tastes best with mild and neutral side dishes that don’t overpower the flavor of the fish.
What types of fish are similar to kinki?
If you can’t find kinki anywhere or simply can’t afford it, you can substitute another species for a similar but underwhelming experience. White-fleshed fish like cod, halibut, and mahi-mahi have a mild, neutral flavor that can easily be substituted for kinki in the same recipes. Fatty fish like mackerel, salmon, eel, and even sea urchin will be similar in texture, but their flavor profiles differ wildly.