It is known as sanma (サンマ / 秋刀魚) in Japanese, kongchi (꽁치) in Korean, qiu dao yu (秋刀魚) in Chinese, and saira (сайра) in Russian. Pacific saury are often imported to the United Kingdom where they are used as bait for sea fishing. In the UK they are usually called blueys, possibly due to people confusing the Pacific saury with blue mackerel.
The term saira used in its scientific name is the fish's local name in the Kii Peninsula region of Japan.
The Chinese characters used in the Chinese and Japanese names of the fish (秋刀魚) mean "autumn knife fish", in reference to its body shape, somewhat resembling a knife, and its peak season. The Japanese name is not related to the pronunciations of the Chinese characters in Japanese, and is an example of gikun (characters used for meaning only, not sound).
It is a fish with a small mouth, an elongated body, a series of small finlets between the dorsal and anal fins, and a small forked tail. The color of the fish is dark green to blue on the dorsal surface, silvery below, and there are small, bright blue blotches distributed randomly on the sides. The average overall body length of the Pacific saury is 36 – 41 cm, and their maximum reported age is two years.
These pelagic schooling fish are found in the North Pacific, from Japan eastward to the Gulf of Alaska and southward to subtropical Mexico; 67°N – 18°N, 137°E – 108°W, preferring temperatures around 15 – 18°C. Pacific saury are usually found near the surface (though they may have a depth range of 0 – 230 m), and they are known to glide above the surface of the water when moving away from predators (a behavior that links them to the flying fish, a cousin of the saury family).
The Pacific saury is a highly migratory species. Adults are generally found offshore, near the surface of the ocean, in schools. Juveniles associate with drifting seaweed. Pacific saury are oviparous. Eggs are attached to one another and to floating objects such as seaweed via filaments on the shell surface.
Pacific saury (often marketed as mackerel pike) are sought after by Chinese, Taiwanese, Russian and Japanese fishermen. This fish has great economic importance in the part of the world where it is found.
Fishing of saury is facilitated by their attraction to light. Thus, a common way of catching them is to affix powerful lighting fixtures with a number of 500 W blue or white lamps to one side of a boat, and some weaker red lamps to the other. When fish congregate under the stronger white lamps, the lighting is switched to the other side, where the fish – often the whole school – are collected in nets.
Saury, or sanma, is one of the most prominent seasonal foods representing autumn in Japanese cuisine. It is most commonly served salted and grilled (broiled) whole, garnished with daikon oroshi (grated daikon) and served alongside a bowl of rice and a bowl of miso soup. Other condiments may include soy sauce, or lime, lemon, or other citrus juices. The intestines are bitter, but many people choose not to gut the fish, as many say its bitterness, balanced by the condiments, is part of the enjoyment. Salt-grilled saury is also served in Korea, where it is known as kongchi gui (꽁치구이).
Sanma sashimi is becoming increasingly available but is not common. It is rarely used for sushi; however sanma-zushi is a regional delicacy along parts of the Kii Peninsula, especially along the coast of southern Mie Prefecture. It is prepared by pickling the sanma in salt and vinegar (depending on the region, bitter orange or citron vinegar may be used), and then placing it on top of vinegared rice to create the finished sushi.
The flesh of Pacific saury contains good quality protein, which is easily digested, absorbed, and used by the human body. The flesh is rich in unsaturated fatty acids such as EPA and DHA, "good fats" that aid in the prevention of heart disease.