Sesame Saba

February 25, 2006


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:

Sakanachu 魚忠
On the intersection of Shinomiya and Imamiya-dori.
Tel. (075)492-1506
Evening Tel. (075)491-1920


7 Responses to “Sesame Saba”

  1. sha Says:

    take the gills and guts out
    salt pepper and lemon maybe a dash of soya
    then grill

    or… add tomato,onions pepper on baking dish
    bake it not too long

  2. Georgia Says:

    Ahh your blog makes me homesick for my 2 years in Kyoto. There was nothing better than a Saturday morning exploring Nishiki markets and then having lunch somewhere in those back streets. Katsuya – where they made the most divine tonkastu and you ground up your own sesame seeds for the sauce!
    Keep up the good work – I’ve really enjoyed what you’ve written so far!

  3. Robyn Says:

    A comment too late for that beauty pictured above, but one of my favorite ways with whole mackerel is (I hope you have an oven), heat a heavy roasting pan or baking sheet or baking pan in an oven at about 250. You want the pan to get good and hot. Gut and gill the fish, rinse it out, and dry it inside and out. Open the stomach up so it’s butterflied. Rub the inside with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Lay thin slices of lemon all along the inside, overlapping. Now add some rosemary on the stalk, plenty of it. Close the fish and tie it shut with kitchen string in two or three places, depending on size of fish. Rub outside with olive oil and salt and pepper.
    When your tray is good and hot toss the fish on it, then bake till done, maybe 15 mins or so for a foot-long fish? The bottom will crisp on the hot tray and the top will get nice and golden. Eat with lemon and a simple tartar sauce, if you like.

    Works nicely on the grill as well.

    (If you can’t get rosemary, you could use dill, fennel stalks, oregano … not sure what’s available in Kyoto!)

  4. Lucas Says:

    Just discovered your blog. I am living in Osaka at the moment, so am nearby! I will have to keep checking to see what you are cooking.

    From what I know about fish (which isn’t much!) – a good quality fresh fish should have clear eyes still, as it would in the water. They shouldn’t have glazed over.

    I remember seeing once a documentary about the best fish for sashimi and they killed the fish fast so that it didn’t have time to let adrenalin get through the muscles. They fishermen could then pick up the fish by one end and it wouldn’t flop down. It stayed rigid. I don’t know how accurate my memory is though – it was a long time ago!

  5. Teaser Says:

    Hi, the perfect knive for filetting fish is a deba. Since you live in Kyoto I will take the liberty of recommending the Aritsugu range to you. I believe they are located at Nishiki-Koji Dori, Gokomachi Nishi-iru, Nakagyo-ku. 1 block north of Shijo Dori on the north side of Nishiki-Koji Dori, west of Gokomachi. They are expensive but worth every penny. I purchased a ten inch deba from them in July and have used it with great joy and efficacy filleting fish and cleaving lobsters. Oh you’ll have to hone up on your knife-sharpening skills too btw if you do purchase one.

  6. Hanna Says:

    Thank you for the comment! I recently bought a knife at Aritsugu, not a deba, but a normal kitchen knife. However, I don’t have a wet stone… any suggestions on sharpening before I buy one?

  7. […] I was stuck in a hole for years (aka college dining). The first time I cooked na no hana (with the sesame saba), it was too bitter to finish. I thought I would never have it in my kitchen again… until […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: