Japan's Sea Fish Menu: Herring, Sardines and Horse Mackerel

The nishin herring is not as widely used as in Europe, though it is found most famously in Kyoto with buckwheat noodles, in nishin soba. Its female roe is dried to make the delicacy kazunoko, a favorite in New Year’s Osechi-ryori cuisine, while the herring itself is mostly served as humble shioyaki.

If the herring’s associations with Kyoto lend it a faded nouveau riche dignity, pity the poor unheralded sardine. In Japanese its name, iwashi, means ‘weak fish’ from its tendency to get scoffed by bigger, nastier fish. However, its ability to proliferate in huge numbers has long made the sardine a cheap staple in Japanese cuisine.

Aji horse mackerel

Small and good in June, large from August to October, sardines make good, cheap sashimi. Traditionally, street vendors filleted it in front of customers’ houses, though these days the custom is very rare. It is also used in tempura, and as dango a round ball made from rice and flour. Ma-iwashi are 'pure' sardines, whilst other varieties are urume iwashi round eyes, and katakuchi iwashi, are Japanese anchovies. 

Boiled and dried, whitebait or small sardine are served with shoyu as an izakaya staple. In Western Japan this is known as chirimenjako. In East Japan it is called shirasuboshi. Oiled sardines in a can are almost de rigeur at tachinomi ‘stand up and drink’ hole-in-the-wall liquor shops-cum-bars.

sardine jakoThe sardine is, it must be noted, far from being just an inexpensive lunch or dinner. Its true nature is revealed in its role as a key ingredient in that most fundamental item of Japanese food – dashi stock. The dried fish known as niboshi is used to create iriko dashi. Discover a great, clear, deep, light stock, and the chances are that it’s - at least in part - a humble sardine at work.

The Japanese characters for aji horse mackerel or jack, combines ‘sakana’ fish and ‘san’ the word for ‘three’, indicating that it was traditionally caught in the third month, March. As ‘aji’ is also a homonym for ‘taste’, it has long been held in high esteem.

Now taken all year, it is most prolific in West Japan from spring to June, in East Japan from May to July, and is used as sashimi, shioyaki, sunomono vinegared food, and nitsuke. It is perhaps best known for being opened up and deep fried in breadcrumbs in the universally-loved aji furai. If it's done well, ie, with fresh fish and good oil, this has to be one of Japanese cuisine's best value dishes. Around the Izu peninsula and islands, its sun dried  form kusayaboshi is famed.

Shima aji, muro aji, kusayamoro and mame aji are just a few of the horse mackerel varieties.