TASTE OF LIFE/ Mackerel sushi: The art of letting fish rest in stages adds color to special occasions

Editor’s Note: In the Taste of Life series, culinary experts, chefs, and others involved in the food business showcase their special recipes related to their life journeys.

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The first time Katsuhiko Ueda, an “activist for popularizing fish eating”, tried “saba-zushi” (mackerel sushi) was when he was visiting a friend’s family home in Kyoto during the end-of-year and New Year holidays.

Mackerel sushi was served on a large plate on a table surrounded by his friend’s family and relatives. They looked at the sushi and burst into smiles.

“It’s a special dish served at Bon’s Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Eve,” his friend said.

Ueda is reminiscent of the thick slices of mackerel placed on rice. Combined with the sweet and sour aroma, the sushi certainly had a special presence.

Since ancient times, seafood caught in Wakasa in Fukui Prefecture, including mackerel, is said to have played a role in Kyoto’s food culture.

According to a spokesperson for Obama City in Fukui Prefecture, written accounts from the Muromachi period (14th to 16th centuries) mention that mackerel caught along the coast of Wakasa Bay are salted and brought to Kyoto along a route now known as the “saba kaido,” or “mackerel route.”

This is believed to be the reason why the custom of eating mackerel sushi took root in Kyoto.

The key was knowing how to appreciate mackerel, which spoils quickly and is hard to find fresh in remote places.

Kyoto has a culture of separating the “hare”, the unusual annual festivals, and the “ke”, the daily life.

Kyoto’s ingenious way of enjoying fish and its flavor impressed Ueda.

“It was my first experience where I could understand the custom of eating fish as a culture,” he said.

To avoid the trouble of preparing the fish, Ueda suggests buying salted mackerel fillets (“shio-saba”) produced in Japan. Those caught overseas tend to be oilier and more difficult to pickle with vinegar.

Asking your fishmonger to prepare the fish is another option. If you can find a “good shop” bustling and ready to offer fish information and recipes, cooking them will become fun.

“Despite being a fish, mackerel is thick and full of umami like meat,” Ueda said. “And it can be pickled with salt and vinegar and left to sit for the flavor to improve. It is a dish that looks like a work of art incorporating salt, vinegar, rice and time.

Born in 1964 in Shimane prefecture, Ueda is an activist to popularize the consumption of fish. While studying at Nagasaki University, he worked as a fisherman and joined the Fisheries Agency after graduating.

Since leaving the agency in 2015, he has continued to convey the appeal of fish.

Katsuhiko Ueda (Photo by Atsuko Shimamura)


The main ingredients

1 fresh mackerel, salt, vinegar, sugar, hot rice cooked al dente, sweet and sour ginger pickle (shoga no amazuzuke) (if available)

1. Fillet the mackerel and coat it with a handful of salt. Let the fillets rest for at least 1 hour. Rinse off the salt under running water and pat dry with paper towel.

Fillet the mackerel and coat it with a handful of salt. (Photo by Atsuko Shimamura)

2. Spread the mackerel in a flat container and add the vinegar covering the fillets. Leave to rest for at least 30 minutes. Dry thoroughly with absorbent paper. Remove the bones found along the center of the tenderloin. Peel the skin.

3. Add salt and sugar to the vinegar used to pickle the mackerel and mix them together. Check and adjust the taste. Add this sushi vinegar to the rice and mix by cutting the movement. Use a fan to cool to body temperature.

4. Spread the vinegar mackerel in the form of pressed sushi (“oshizushi”). Pack the sushi rice on top, pressing as if to squeeze out air. Remove the sushi from the mold so that the mackerel comes on top.

Spread the vinegared mackerel in the shape of a pressed sushi. (Photo by Atsuko Shimamura)

5. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap so that there is no air and place on a flat container. Place a light weight on top and let it sit in a cool place such as the crisper compartment of the refrigerator. Cut into appropriate size and serve on a plate with a sweet and sour ginger pickle.

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From the Jinsei Reshipi (Recipe of Life) Column of the Asahi Shimbun

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