Put down your glass of milk and try this calcium-packed snack instead—if you dare.
Do you consider yourself a seafood lover? Does your mouth water at the prospect of a beautiful plate of sushi? Lobster tails? Crab legs? Shrimps and scallops? Smoked salmon? Mmm….
How about dozens of tiny fish with their eyes looking up at you from the ends of your chop-sticks?
Chirimen-jako, or dried fish bait from the anchovy and sardine families, is just that—and it’s a staple of the Japanese diet. Mildly salty in flavour, crunchy in texture and slightly shy in odour, chirimen-jako can be spotted on Japanese dining tables morning, noon and night as a rice topping, a salad ingredient or a side dish of its own. The nearly transparent, “wavy” bodies of the sh lend them their name, with “chirimen” referring to a traditional silk fabric with fine wrinkles on the surface and “jako” meaning different kinds of young fish. The name comes from the view that the fish have been laid out and dried on the shore like pieces of silk.
Dried in the sun for several days before being packaged in vacuum-sealed bags and sold in the freezer section of Asian supermarkets, chirimen-jako is a versatile ingredient capable of adding a punch of flavour to your average dish. It is most commonly found piled on top of steaming hot rice (otherwise known as chirimen-don) and served for breakfast, perhaps with a bit of ponzu (citrus vinegar) to taste. Though the sh is not typically salted, it carries a hint of salty flavour with it from the sea, and its addition to soft rice dishes brings along a satisfying crunch.
Not only is this salty snack tasty, but it also carries nutritional weight. Parents are apt to mix chirimen-jako into their child’s white rice as a way of sneaking in much-needed nutrients for the day—just 100 g of these tiny guys provides 500 mg of calcium, or the recommended daily dose. Others choose to snack on the fish as a quick and easy way of racking up a range of other nutritional benefits, including impressive doses of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, manganese and iron. And according to traditional Chinese medicine, chirimen-jako lightly cooked in a pan with sake and fresh sansho (hot pepper fruit) powder is said to produce a dish that warms the body from the inside out, improving the digestive system.
Should you have a chance to visit Japan, it won’t be hard to track down a dish of chirimen-jako. In fact, one town in particular has made it its mission to introduce visitors to the tasty goodness of chirimen-don. Aki, a city in Kochi Prefecture on Shikoku island, is famous for the fish-topped rice dish and has gone so far as to launch an official association dedicated to the task of promoting it. Visit the city and you’re bound to pick up a map pointing to the absolute best chirimen-don spots in the city. Wander to your heart’s content and eat up! You did say you loved seafood, didn’t you?