Food

Roast It, Steam, It, Eat It Raw: How to Enjoy Oysters in Japan

Here at SAMURAI MEETUPS, we’re working on a series of interviews with experts who talk about niche subjects related to Japan.

We had an opportunity to speak with Erisa, who has worked with an oyster trading company for 4 years. She loves to eat oysters, and not only knows the different ways to consume them, but she also knows what drinks (Japanese sake) to pair them with. I’ll be honest, I’ve become a fan of the shellfish myself after she preached the wonders of oysters to me.

Q: What sparked your interest in oysters?

A: It was when I got a job at an oyster wholesale company. I grew up in Gifu, a land-locked prefecture. Because we lived so far away from the sea, I wasn’t familiar with eating them at home. But while I was looking for work, I found an oyster trading company and became very interested in the niche ingredient… and the rest is history.

For three years I worked in the sales department, working to develop overseas oyster market. I also did wholesale work, selling oysters to local restaurants. I’ve eaten a lot of them, so I’ll try to answer your questions to the best of my ability!

Q: How does the taste differ among these oysters?

A: It depends on the species, and it can vary on sweetness, saltiness, or how rich or light the flavor is.

When I went to Hong Kong on a business trip, I saw oysters being sold at the supermarket, and found the conversations among shoppers really interesting. Until then, I couldn’t really tell the difference in taste among these oysters; but these shoppers knew explicitly, saying “oh this one’s sweet,” or “this one is sour!”

After that, I decided to also train my taste buds, tasting oysters at least once a month. I ate as many as 20 in a day—looking back, it was a bit too much…! But once you eat that many, you become capable of discerning how plump the oysters are, or what drinks to pair with them.

Q: We’re interested in learning about what drinks go well with these oysters.

A: For example, a sweet oyster wouldn’t go well with dry sake, so I recommend you eat it with some mild-tasting white wine. “Senpo-shi,” a type from Hokkaido, is on the sweeter side. It might be influenced by how there are a lot of seaweeds growing in its sea of production. But if you drink dry sake along with that oyster, you won’t be able to tell its sweetness—so I recommend you pair it with a sweet-tasting sake or wine.

On the other hand, oysters from Hiroshima- an area most famous for domestic oyster production- aren’t all that sweet. They’re actually more salty, or bitter. For these types, it’s better to roast or steam them, as the bitterness turns more flavorful through heat.

If you do visit Hiroshima, you might notice that in restaurants and at homes, most people either roast or steam these oysters. I think it’s the best way to really get the flavors out of these types.

Q: Oysters are mainly farmed, right?

A: Yes. The baby oysters are called “seeds,” and in oyster farms, they grow and harvest these seeds. The good thing about farming is that it produces oysters with relatively consistent quality compared to naturally grown ones. The farmed oyster shells have a really nice shape-- for example, oysters from overseas usually don't have sharp edges, because they rotate the bags that the shellfish grow in from time to time.

Rock and Pacific oysters are the predominant types found in Japan. You can eat rock oysters in the summer-- they’re 3 times the size of Pacific oysters, and usually take longer time to grow. They vary by region, but oysters usually take 1.5 to 2 years to grow. Prefectures known for them are Hiroshima, Miyagi, Hokkaido, Mie, Nagasaki, and Hyogo area.

In the U.S., there’s an oyster type by the name of “Kumamoto”—but Kumamoto Prefecture isn’t actually a top producer of oysters in Japan.

Q: What’s the best season for oysters, and where should I go for the best-tasting ones? And I’d like to know if you have any recommendations for a specific type.

A: It’s definitely worth trying some of the oysters found here in Japan! The country stretches from north to south, so the taste really varies by region. I’d say February to April is a good time to enjoy various types. It’s when oysters are harvested across the country.

I personally think April is a good month—the meat in the oysters is quite plump at that time of the year. When you progress into May, oysters start carrying eggs, so they start to smell a bit fishy.

June to mid-August is a good season for rock oysters.

I really like “Karen,” which is a type from Nagasaki Prefecture—let me tell you, these are really tasty. “Karen” actually won 1stplace in a nationwide oyster contest in 2012. It’s sweet, not very bitter, and rather small in size. Its shells are white, circular, and quite lovely. It goes well with sweet drinks, so I recommend you pair with white wine.

If you want to eat roasted oysters I recommend those from Hiroshima, because oysters from Hiroshima carry a lot of glycogen—which is a source of umami—before April, when they begin to carry eggs. This is when they are the tastiest. Oysters in Hiroshima grow in a nutrient-abundant sea, so they taste really rich. If you want to eat oyster fries or tempura, then definitely try them in Hiroshima.

You can generally eat oysters all throughout Japan, but it’s probably the best to visit the regions known for them. Lately, Shimane Prefecture and Nakatsu City in Oita Prefecture have begun using oyster production as a way to revitalize their communities.

Q: Wow, I can really tell your love and passion for these oysters! Thanks for all the information—one last question, what do oysters mean to you…?

A: Hm… they’re like my best friend from the sea that I’ve become obsessed with after learning more about them.

I’ve really enjoyed learning about this ingredient—and not just by eating. I became really interested in learning how oysters are grown, the producers behind them... They’ve opened my eyes to behind-the-scenes side of food, beyond just eating.

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Erisa really preached her love for oysters. Next time—we’ll take you through Erisa and Madoka’s recommendations for oyster restaurants. Stay tuned!  

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