As the country that has done more than most to persuade the world at large that the practice of eating raw fish is in fact a rather refined and remarkably good idea, Japan possesses a cuisine that only the bravely imaginative could picture without seafood.
Indeed, fish in Japan can be regarded as practically a foundation of its cooking. It is thus hardly accidental that the world’s biggest fish market happens to be located in the home of sushi and sashimi. Suppliers to Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market do of course avail themselves of modern refrigeration to ensure the freshness of their produce. But back in an age when frigidity in Japan was largely confined to winter months or high altitudes, other means had to be devised to ensure the wholesomeness of the fish on the plate, and the readiest to implement was the simple act of drying.
Once caught, fish tend to decompose fairly rapidly, and the process of drying involves the removal of water from them so as to hinder the growth of microorganisms, which lead to the decay and which generally prefer things nice and moist. Owing to the basic ease of this method of preservation, it is of course not confined to Japan but is found the world over—perhaps most conspicuously in Portugal, where dried, salted cod, known as bacalhau, is the country’s most iconic food ingredient and for which the Portuguese reputedly have over a thousand ways of preparation.
Dried or semi-dried fish is known as himono in Japan, and it is not the only traditional means of stopping finny fare from going bad: the country’s own iconic dish of sushi does in fact have its ancient origins in a means of preserving fish by fermentation with salt and rice. There is also the delectable tsukudani, which involves simmering seafood, seaweed, meat or vegetables with a mixture of soy sauce, mirin (a sweet spirit-based liquid flavoring) and sugar until almost dry. Tsukudani preserves well, and the intense salty-sweet result means that only a little of it goes a long way, such as in flavoring rice. But in addition to its ease of preparation, himono has the advantage of retaining fidelity to the original flavor of the fish.
Preparing fish for himono typically involves scaling the fish where appropriate, splitting the creature open from tail to head, removing the innards, washing the fish in water, sprinkling it with salt and then drying it out in the sun. Thereafter, depending on the desired state of dryness, the wind and night air do their work in removing the moisture. For people who travel around Japan, the sight of fish stretched out on screens or being suspended as they undergo the drying process is certainly no uncommon one, particularly in coastal areas.
But as well as seeing himono being produced, travelers in Japan will probably also get to sample the stuff. Himono is one of the standard items that make up the classic Japanese breakfast. And people who stay at the traditional inns known as ryokan (which should include every wise visitor to the country) are almost certain to be served grilled himono along with miso soup, pickles, rice and seaweed to set them up for the day. If the visitor gets the chance to try freshly grilled himono later on, they will find that it is an absolute treat with a mug of beer or cup of sake.
In recent years, himono has begun to make an impression beyond the direct piscine context. The term himono onna (“dried fish woman”) first made an appearance in a manga comic book and TV series based upon it, and it is used to describe an unmarried woman in her late 20s or early 30s who has given up on love and relationships. Freed of the need to conform to the usual social mold of marriage and motherhood, the himono onna has learned to be self-reliant, focus on her career and live life pretty much for herself. And of course more than a few people would believe that for a woman freeing herself from the constraints of social stereotypes, there is absolutely nothing fishy at all.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo