japanese tuna salad rolls: a bound salad set free.

if you were to wander into one of the estimated 46,000 convenience stores in japan, you would eventually come upon a section of the refrigerated shelving designated for rice balls.  some of them contain extravagent ingredients, like spiced cod roe, chopped green onions, and fresh wasabi.  others are decidedly non-japanese in flavor, such as the surreptitiously bright yellow dry curry rice balls.

but no matter where you go, regardless of whether you are in a 7-11, familymart, circle k, daily yamazaki, or lawson, you will undoubtedly find a rice ball labeled “sea chicken.”

it contains, as you might guess, a 1:1 mixture of tuna and mayonnaise.  they are the cheapest for a reason. namely, because they are just awful.

sea chicken, also known as tsuna-sarada , is one of the only culinary sensations in japan that i just can’t seem to get into.  and while i don’t really care for it much,  i don’t think it should be eliminated from the culinary landscape of japan or anything.  i’m not going to spend this post talking about the health ramifications of eating foods which are comprised of literally 50% mayonnaise (which should be obvious).  nor will i waste it making an argument for why other rice balls/sushi plates are far superior (even though they are).

instead, i’m going to spend this post talking about the profound cultural and linguistic influence sea chicken.

yes, you read that right.

at the beginning of every english class, i pick randomly choose three questions my students know, write them on the board, and allow them to walk about the class asking as many of their friends as possible in four minutes.  almost two years ago, during one such session of the “today’s conversation game,” i asked a 5th grade student of mine what his favorite salad was.  without a moment’s hesitation, he candidly replied with the words “corn salad.”

when i heard “corn salad,” the first thing that came to mind was something akin to a corn salsa.  kernels of corn, maybe some diced onion, probably some black beans, a few sprigs of cilantro, and a little salt.  every tex-mex restaurant in the united states has some variation on that theme, and i was impressed with the novelty of his answer.

so, like an idiot, i followed up and asked him, “why?”

again, without hesitation or regret, he responded, “because i like mayo.”

and in that single second, he had turned the tables on me.  i was shocked and confused.  as soon as he justified his answer, i honestly had no clue what food he was talking about.  i give him a weak “oh wow, good job,” and moved on with the lesson in an effort to disguise how discombobulated i was.  but at the end of the day, i couldn’t forgive myself for not knowing.  i bit the bullet and asked a fellow teacher what corn salad was.  he gave me the most straight forward answer you could imagine.

he said the word “corn,” and mimed opening a can and pouring its contents into a bowl.  then, while holding his imaginary bowl of corn in his left hand, he held his right hand as if it were grasping something.  he said the word “mayo,” pointed his right hand towards the bowl, and made a farty noise with his mouth for five seconds.  then he mimed stirring.  he concluded by victoriously proclaiming, “finish.”

and i died a little bit inside.

my student isn’t the only one.  many japanese people i have met over the past couple of years strongly associate the term salad with bound salad.  a bound salad is comprised of hearty ingredients and combined with a thick sauce, normally mayonnaise.  the confusion which occurred in class had resulted from my american upbringing, which subconsciously informed me that the word salad is more often than not used to refer to a green salad or vegetable salad.
having lived in japan for a little while, i admit that i do eat more bound salad than i used to.  but the freshness of the ingredients available to me has inspired me to attempt to make bound salads which are actually good for me.  especially when paired with a heap of fresh greens, a mayo-less bound salad can be a super filling, tasty, and delicious snack.
japanese unbound tuna salad sliders
you’ll need:
  • 1 large can of tuna
  • 4 split, toasted rolls
  • 2 stalks of celery
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • a thumb of fresh ginger
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 7 or 8 stalks of green onion
  • plain yogurt
  • half a small white onion
  • 2 tbsp sesame seeds
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • salt to taste
  • one cucumber
  • baby leaf spinach
  1. use a rubber band to suspend a coffee filter over a tall cup.  spoon the filter full of yogurt, add a tiny bit of salt, stir once or twice, and let it sit.  you should be able to see the whey slowly dripping into the cup.
  2. peel the garlic and ginger, then finely mince them.  put the sesame oil into a frying pan, bring the pan to medium high heat, and add the garlic and ginger.  saute until the garlic and ginger are fragrant and a little soft, then set them aside in a bowl and pop them in the fridge to chill.
  3. after about 90 to 120 minutes, start assembling your salad.
  4. finely chop the green onions, white onions, and celery.
  5. combine the veggies (including the garlic and ginger), tuna, black pepper, sesame seeds, and tuna.  the yogurt should be very thick by now, almost sour cream-like in texture.  spoon in enough yogurt to reach your desired consistency.
  6. add salt to taste.
  7. julienne the cucumber.  add a few leaves of spinach, some julienned cucumber, and a spoonful or two of tuna salad to each roll.
  8. enjoy sea chicken, guilt free.

11 thoughts on “japanese tuna salad rolls: a bound salad set free.

  1. Mmmm… Your tuna salad sounds gorgeous. Yeah, I agree with you about the Japanese’s obsession with mayonnaise, especially Kewpie one. I hardly touch it but lots of people use it for not only salad but also on Hiyayakko and pasta 😱
    I am not keen on it because the sane as ketchup, the flavour is overpowering – you taste only mayonnaise. I’d rather pour extra virgin olive oil and a dash of sea salt than smother veg or fish with that gooey factory-made saturated fat… 😁

    • on hiyayakko? blasphemy.

      i really don’t like ketchup, either. i feel like ketchup and mayo are the number one condiments people use to drown their food, not season it.

      i think the biggest shame of all is when japanese people put a ton of mayo on nabeyaki-udon and yakisoba. they are so good on their own, there is no need to add empty calories and globby grossness.

  2. Wonderful Misha! I got an education – sea-chicken – really!? – and a beautiful recipe. Had never come across that tip for making yoghurt thicker either. Thank you. :-)

    • no joke, “sea chicken.”

      i have even had a few students over the past few years who were shocked to find out that sea chicken is made of tuna fish, and not in fact chicken (which it clearly states on the label).

      it blows my mind that some of the younger teens here have no idea what some foods they have eaten more than a thousand times are made of.

  3. I’ll eat mayo on sandwiches, and my tuna salad has mayo in it, too (though NOT 1:1). But Matt will dip his fries in it (like the Germans do), and he dips his Fish Fry in mayo as well. It grosses me out. I’d heard of corn salad before, though I can’t remember where, and the idea makes me urp just a little bit. Japanese people sound like they’d be really, really into old fashioned potato salad, macaroni salad, and “seafood dip” that you see at old fashioned Midwestern picnics and summer BBQs.

    • oh jeez. seafood dip. that is the stuff my nightmares are made of. i am a firm believer that any food that squelches when you put a spoon in it should be avoided.

      yeah, potato salad is really big here. pasta salad also tends to just be macaroni with a lot of mayo and maybe some cucumbers.

      amber, if i get ambitious, i may just take a photo of corn salad sushi and send it to you. that stuff is the most urp-worthy food i have ever had the displeasure of laying eyes on.

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