Break out the grill! Seafood fans will love this seasonal swordlike fish that makes an annual appearance.
Ah, October. Temperatures have begun to drop and so have the leaves off the trees. The air is crisp, scarves are emerging from the backs of closets and pumpkins are once again enjoying their short-lived time in the spotlight. But in Japan there is another food that dominates fall, and it’s one you may not be familiar with just yet: sanma. Literally translating to “autumn sword fish,” sanma is the Japanese name for Pacific saury, otherwise known as mackerel pike. Named for its peak season (fall) and physical appearance (that of silver swords or knives up to 28 cm in length), sanma is an autumnal staple in Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Russian cuisines. Regarded as a humble, everyday meal in Japan for the better part of the 20th century, sanma has since increased in price and exploded in popularity. In fact, today’s sales are so lucrative that 20,000 tonnes of the fall-friendly fish are caught from the Pacific off the east coast of Japan every year, and commercial breeding is becoming increasingly profitable. Sanma—with its long silvery body, small forked tail and bright blue skin patches—is quite the hot commodity.
So let’s talk about this fishy feast: what makes it so great? For starters, preparation is wonderfully straightforward. Sanma is most often salted, grilled and served whole—not even the head or the bones are removed. This method is called sanma no shioyaki and it’s a simple dish that packs a lot of flavour, not to mention protein and brain-boosting omega-3 essential fatty acids. The meat is oily, deliciously fatty and slightly sweet while the intestines (which, like the rest of the fish, are included on the plate!) give it a vaguely bitter taste—something sanma snackers swear by as part of the experience. You’ll find sanma commonly garnished with daikon oroshi (grated daikon radish) and drizzled with soy sauce, lime and lemon before being served with rice and miso soup to form a warm, well-rounded meal that’s the perfect contrast for cool weather. There is still some creativity to be had in the ways that sanma is readied and enjoyed, though. Sanma-zushi (mackerel pike sushi) has made a name for itself as a delicacy along the east coast of Mie Prefecture, not far from Osaka. Sushi restaurants in the region are known to pickle sanma in vinegar and salt before arranging it on a bed of vinegar-soaked rice and serving it deep-fried, with the bones removed. And then there’s the bogata (whole fish) sushi variety of sanma, which involves stuffing a whole fish with rice before chopping it into a sushi-like roll. Suffice it to say that we’re not talking about your typical plate of fish and chips!
If you’re planning to visit Japan as the days grow colder and the leaves change colour, be sure to try this much-loved dish. You’ll be hard-pressed to find this fish served in North America—unless you decide to crack open a can of pet food!