This is a saba fish. Since I didn't eat so much fish before coming to Japan, I just had to look it up. This is a mackerel… and a beautiful one too. The picture doesn't quite show the colorful shimmer in its belly. It must have been plucked out of the sea that very morning. And I bought it… at a great fish store I discovered near Imamiya shrine just north of Kitaoji Street.* There were so many fish that looked incredibly fresh, at least 5 men preparing the fish behind the refridgerated display, and next to me a chef ordering 5 boxes of Aji (horse mackerel or saurel according to the dictionary). I felt proud of my purchase, even though I have no clue about selecting or preparing a whole fish. Does anyone have suggestions?!
When my friend and I got home to cook the fish, we discovered it's harder to cut than one would think. I wanted to have it cut down the middle sort of like a filet (but I didn't care about the bones) so it would soak up some flavor from the sesame sauce. I should have remembered my recent attempt to cut the whole flatfish (karei). The edges of the flatfish were ragged,it was hard to crack through the bones, and the gizzards gave a bitter flavor to the meat around it.
My friend attacked the mackerel for me. She cut off the head and the tail, cut it into roughly two same-sized pieces, sliced open the belly to get out the guts, and then tried to slice through the spine to make my filets, which was impossible. We need a special fish knife, she said.
Thank you Murata Yoshihiro for your recipe of Saba no gomani! The sesame sauce redeemed the dish. It was thick and sesame-y and contrasted perfectly with the delicate flavor of the thick, delicate fish. Yum. Next to a dish of eggplant with bean sauce – I need that recipe! – We had two strong-flavored dishes that competed with each other, but complimented the somewhat bitter greens and light miso soup we had with them. It was a full meal.
[Update March 1, 2006: I tried making this in the states for mom and dad, replacing the Japanese white sesame paste with tahini and the mackerel with red snapper, but it was definitely not the same. Tahini has a strange bitter flavor to it, and the snapper was grainy and bland.]
Saba no gomani
(Makes 2 large servings)
2 Tbs soy sauce
2 Tabs mirin
1/2 cup sake
1/2 cup water
1 fileted mackerel
2 Tbs white sesame paste (neri-goma)
whole black sesame seeds (iri-goma)
First poach the mackerel in hot water. To make the sauces flavor the meat more, slice into the sides of the mackerel skin with a sharp knife. Dip the fish in a boiling pot for a few seconds and take it out. Pat the fish dry.
In a pot put all the ingredients for the sauce except the whole sesame seeds. Bring the pot to a simmer, add the fish, and wait. When the sauce reduces to a thick, creamy substance, the fish and sauce are ready to be served. Top with the black sesame seeds.
*Here's the full fish store information:
On the intersection of Shinomiya and Imamiya-dori.
Evening Tel. (075)491-1920