Lets begin with the fact that these are all names of fish and all of them are in the Jack family. Many sushi bars will feature one or more of these varieties and sell them under the name Yellowtail or Japanese Yellowtail. I often come across customers and sushi bars that assume that these are all the same species of fish and that they can all be used interchangeably. This however is incorrect. To get to the bottom of this issue you have to look at their scientific names and separate them that way.
Hamachi - Seriola quinqueradiata - Japanese Amberjack
Hiramasa - Seriola lalandi - Yellowtail Amberjack
Kona Kampachi - Seriola rivoliana - Almaco Jack - also goes by Hirenaga-kanpachi
Kanpachi - Seriola dumerili - Greater Amberjack
Buri - Seriola quinqueradiata - Japanese Amberjack
Now that we have that in place, we can look at each individual fish and what it has to offer us in the raw.
Hamachi is generally referred to as Yellowtail, but distinctions need to be made from their cousin, the yellowtail amberjack, which is actually hiramasa. Hamachi refers to a farmed fish at a certain stage in its growth process, usually about 1ft in length and 1-2 years of age. Hamachi are usually pen-raised in the seas of south Japan and are processed and shipped out from there to restaurants all over the world. Hamachi flesh is really buttery and firm. These farm raised fish tend to be sweet in flavor, but much richer than their wild counterparts.
Hiramasa is the true yellowtail amberjack, but it is a little harder to find on menus in the U.S. The name hiramasa is generally used to differentiate the farmed raised version from the wild yellowtail amberjack. Most hiramasa are farmed in Australia where the fish are raised from eggs (unlike hamachi which are taken from the wild at a young age) on a diet of feed pellets and are kept out at sea until they reach a marketable size. Known in Australia as hiramasa kingfish, hiramasa tend to be milder in flavor than hamachi and much less oily. The texture is a firm flake and the fish pairs really well with scallion and citrus.
|Kona Kampachi on ice|
Kanpachi is a greater amberjack and is usually even harder to find in most U.S. markets as sashimi grade. They are wild caught and must be taken at an early age to reduce the chances of parasites. Kanpachi can be caught in Pacific, Atlantic, and Mediterranean waters, though the fish is most prized during its early stages of growth. During the infant stage kanpachi have a figure eight in the middle of their heads, which is where the name kanpachi derives, meaning "center eight." The flesh is firm, with light oils and is very tasty.
Buri are actually wild 'hamachi' or Japanese amberjack and the name is meant to describe a fish that is over 3 years old, though sometimes it can just be meant to describe wild amberjack at any age. During the winter they are highly prized for their high fat content and are at the peak of their flavor profile. Buri are hard to come across in most U.S. sushi bars, but if you happen to come across this delicious fish during the winter months, do not pass up the chance. The meat is firm, very distinctive and complex, with high fat and light oil.
Now that we have the jacks straight you are ready to walk into any sushi joint and spit some insider knowledge that will have your dining mates thinking that you have a P.H.D. in raw fish. You might even impress the chef, but be careful, some of these names change when you get into the different regions of Japan and different dialects. Anyhow, at least you will be able to identify which fish you are enjoying and call out any establishment that glosses over what they are selling.