Hirame and Ohyo
What are Hirame and Ohyo?
Hirame (hee-rah-meh) is the Japanese term for any type of flat, bottom living horizontally-oriented fish (the word meaning literally “flatfish”), but in cuisine (sushi) it is primarily (but not limited to being) used for Fluke, which is actually another word in the US for Summer flounder. There are actually many different types of flounder, but for culinary purposes there are two that are most commonly found in a restaurant, Summer Flounder and Winter Flounder (also called Blackjack in some areas). Winter Flounder is actually called karei in Japan. If a person were to order hirame in western countries, they would generally be served either Fluke, or in some cases it turns out, Halibut.
Halibut live in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and there are minor differences in those populations. They are not minor enough for them to share the same name in Japanese, however. In Romaji (a Latin alphabet used to write the Japanese alphabet for westerners), Pacific Halibut are called oyhou (oh-yoh) (or O Hi yo U in Kana, which is the term for syllabic Japanese scripts) and is shortened to oyho in the west. Sometimes it is actually labeled ohyo, however this is not the Japanese word for Halibut, and the etymology of this mislabeling is not clear. Atlantic Halibut, however, are called karasu garei, which interestingly is translated as “Cow Flounder.” Halibut remain on the menu of many sushi restaurants as hirame, though, even though this is not the proper term. The difference between all these fish…? When you look at a flatfish of any kind there is a direction it must face in order for the mouth and pectoral fin to look like a “normal” fish. If you look at a Winter Flounder it will look to the right. If you look at a Summer Flounder (Fluke) it will look to the left. The rule in Japan is “Hidari Hirame, Migi Karei” meaning “Left Hirame, Right Karei.” The Ohyo (Pacific Halibut) as well as the Atlantic Halibut both face right, and are therefore technically considered “Karei.”
As with most nigiri-zushi, one order is generally a pair, and in the case of hirame, the meat is taken from the area around the fish’s fin and is called the engawa, which means ‘porch.’ The size of the neta (or tane) can be a clear indicator of the type of fish that is being served as hirmae (Fluke) pieces are often so small that a few (usually two) are needed to top the rice (shari). Ohyo (Halibut) will be a single piece of fish on top of the shari. Hirame is also more common in winter months, when the fish is at its leanest, and in Japan, this is considered the best time to serve hirame. Summer hirame has a tendency to be fattier and mushy, the antithesis of the light, clean flavor and firm texture of winter hirame. Halibut, on the other hand, is served year round with consistency.
While both hirame and ohyo are excellent choices, lighter fare with a sweet, subtle flavor, they are most certainly different meats. It is doubtful anyone would be unhappy being served either, they are similar enough, however it is always good to know what you are getting, as an educated consumer will know what to specifically ask for upon subsequent visits to any sushi-ya.