Sushi Ginza Onodera Chutoro (Fatty Tuna)
A pristine cut of fatty bluefin tuna at Sushi Ginza Onodera in New York City

Tuna is one of the most common items served in Japanese restaurants. We’ve talked previously about where the majority of the world’s tuna is sourced from and debated the usage of farm-raised versus wild-caught tuna in Japanese cuisine. But what about the different types of tuna used for sushi, sashimi and more of the country’s many delicacies? Surely, a Michelin-starred omakase-only restaurant in New York City can’t be serving cuts from the same fish as some neighborhood sushi joint in a landlocked state…right?

Firstly, it’s important to stress the importance of consuming sustainable seafood and to acknowledge the possible shortcomings of several types of tuna when it comes to this criterion. Just yesterday, Quartz wrote about the severe amount of overfishing taking place worldwide, speculating that there might not be any sushi left by 2048 should we continue our current patterns. There are positive signs, however, such as the imposition — six years ago — of a scientifically recommended quota for catching Atlantic bluefin tuna and the subsequent significant growth of the species. Of the five types of tuna listed below, only one (Southern bluefin tuna) is presently labeled as “critically endangered,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Back to the question at hand. We decided to go straight to the source for this one, speaking with chef Masaki Saito of NYC’s newly Michelin-starred Sushi Ginza Onodera (alas, we did not chat with the chef of some neighborhood sushi joint in a landlocked state). He told us about the five most common types of tuna served in Japanese restaurants worldwide and provided a bit of insight into their appearances and uses. Here’s what we learned.

KOSAKA Sushi Otoro (Fatty Tuna) (2) (1)
Bluefin tuna is used at many top-notch sushi establishments for choice cuts such as toro.

Bluefin tuna

Bluefin tuna are mainly caught in the Atlantic Ocean. They are the largest tuna, typically weighing around 600 to 1,000 pounds. Bluefin is usually served in top-notch sushi restaurants because it is, quite simply, the most delicious tuna available in the world. In particular, the fat and protein are perfectly balanced, and pieces have a melt-in-your-mouth-type feel.

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A quarter-loin of bluefin tuna. The color gets progressively lighter as the fat content gets higher.

If you sit at the counter of a quality sushi bar, the long slabs of tuna you’ll see behind the glass are likely all from the same cut of bluefin tuna. The darkest shade is akami (lean) tuna, the slightly lighter one is chu-toro (medium-fatty tuna) and the lightest and smoothest-looking of the three — often filled with healthy streaks of marbleization — is o-toro (fatty tuna).

Southern bluefin tuna

Southern bluefin tuna are similar to bluefin tuna, but they come from the Indian Ocean or from other places in the Southern Hemisphere. They are smaller than bluefin tuna, but the quality is almost as good. As mentioned above, the species is critically endangered. Quotas are now in place for fishing, with Australia (followed by Japan) allowing for the highest yearly level of catches.

Lauren Packard
Nothing to see here, folks…just a couple of bigeyes! (Photo: Lauren Packard/Flickr.)

Bigeye tuna

No surprise here — these are tuna with big eyes! They are leaner compared to the bluefin, but their akami tends to be top quality. We’d recommend going with bluefin tuna for toro lovers, and Bigeye for akami lovers.

Did you order seared tuna at a casual restaurant? Chances are that it’s lean yellowfin — or ahi — tuna. (Photo: smalljude/Flickr.)

Yellowfin tuna

Quite simply, tuna with yellow fins. Flavor-wise, they’re similar to the bigeyes. In Japan, yellowfin tuna are the most commonly found tuna and are served widely in many casual sushi spots. There’s a good chance that any menu item marked as “tuna” and offered either seared, blackened, marinated or cooked at a restaurant is of this type.

Jeremy Keith
Albacore tuna is easily recognizable from its light hue and less smooth texture. (Photo: Jeremy Keith/Flickr.)

Albacore tuna

Albacores are widely used for canned tuna. Their sushi pieces are identifiable by a lighter, rosy color and a rougher consistency than their brethren. Price-wise, they are the most affordable, so in Japan, you’ll find albacores at belt-conveyor sushi chains. At Japanese restaurants in the U.S., albacore will often run a bit cheaper than all other types of tuna. This is what you are hoping is marked as “white tuna” at sushi restaurants across the U.S., but it’s much more likely that any establishment carrying albacore would label it clearly as such (see below).

Points of note:

  1. Ahi tuna, which is commonly used for poke in Hawaii, can be used to refer to both bigeyes and yellowfins. These are the two most likely types of tuna to be cubed.
  2. Find yourself looking at a menu offering “white tuna”? Stay away! Don’t say we haven’t warned you.