A staple at most All You Can Eat Japanese(AYCEJ) restaurants, a lot of people do not know that “white tuna” isn’t tuna at all!
Most “white tuna” served at restaurants is actually a fish called “Escolar”. It is rich tasting, oily, meaty fish. It is a mild flavorful with a smooth buttery taste. It is truly a delicious fish, but with one major drawback…
The fish is poisonous. Unable to digest fatty acids in the food it consumes, Escolar accumulates a high concentration of oil in its flesh. When this oil is consumed many people suffer digestive including cramps, diarrhea, headaches, and oily discharge.
As a result, there has been a lot of controversy over this fish. Italy and Japan have banned the sale of Escolar for human consumption and other countries, including Canada, have put warnings regarding the adverse effects of consuming this fish.
Some countries have made it a strong point forcing restaurants to clearly identify Escolar from “white tuna” but here in Canada, this either isn’t the case or not enforced as I see “white tuna” on the menus of restaurants all over the place.
Personally, I’ve never had any side effects (yet) from eating Escolar at sushi restaurants. Knowing what I know now, I have reduced the amount of “white tuna” I eat at any given sitting. The Internet has recommends eating no more than 6 ounces at one time.
Adding to the confusion, there is actually a white tuna. In North America, white tuna typically refers to Albacore tuna, a light fleshed mild tuna which is often used as canned tuna. In the United States, only Albacore tuna may be referred as “white tuna”.
Though many AYCE restaurants serve Escolar, some do serve Albacore tuna. Escolar is typically bright white, but as fish ages, the flesh becomes darker. It has a very oily flesh and creamy buttery flavor. Albacore has a pick
color, and though milder then their bigger cousins (blue fin and yellow fin), it has a bolder, fishier taste then Escolar.
Compounding the misidentification, many fish retailers purposefully mislabel Escolar as Sea Bass, Halibut, and Albacore. When prepared as fillets, Escolar can look very similar as those more expensive species. Your best guard is to buy fish from reputable fishmongers.
So there you have it, “white tuna” is no tuna at all. You can sometimes tell the difference, but I’ve seen older Escolar flesh look very similar to Albacore –so it can be difficult. As mentioned before, I still eat “white tuna” at restaurants, but in very moderate amounts. The next time you are at your favorite AYCE sushi bar, just remember that you may not getting what you expect.
I found this blog entry that does a comparsion between Escoloar and Albacore and has good picture references.