Reel in the catch of the season

Tasty blue-skinned fish such as ma-aji and buri reach their peak in the cooler months

by Makiko Itoh

The long, record-breaking hot summer hasn’t been good for sanma, or Pacific saury. Catches of this normally inexpensive fixture of the fall dinner table in Japanese homes have been so poor that its prices have skyrocketed — if you can find any to buy at all. Another popular fish that is in peak season at this time of year, salmon, is also in shorter supply than usual, due to the warm waters caused by the blistering heat of the summer.

That doesn’t mean that you have to forgo the pleasures of fish. Even if sanma is off the menu this year, you can still pick up other aozakana (blue-skinned fish), which are at their peak in the cooler months. Their flesh is rich with the heart-beneficial omega-3 oil that makes them so moist and tasty, as they prepare for the cold waters of winter and spawning season.

A tasty blue fish that seems to be in plentiful supply right now is ma-aji, a type of horse mackerel. Ma-aji can be eaten as sashimi if it’s very fresh, or simply salt-grilled, which is my favorite way to enjoy it. Saba (mackerel) is also fairly inexpensive right now — another fish that’s great grilled, or stewed in a mixture of soy sauce, mirin (sweet cooking wine), sake and lots of fresh ginger.

The salmon supply situation is not as dire as that of sanma, so you can still enjoy favorites such as shiozake (salted salmon) and grilled salmon. But why not take this opportunity to try a fish with similar characteristics, like yellowtail? This season’s catch is reported to be better than normal, which is great news for fans of this assertive, oily fish.

A mature yellowtail is called buri in Japanese. However, yellowtail is a shusse zakana, or a “fish that advances in the world”; its name changes as it becomes more mature. To make things more confusing, the names for juvenile yellowtail differ from region to region. In the Kanto (Tokyo metropolitan) area, these include wakashi, inada, warasa and mejiro; In Kansai (Osaka-Kyoto), tsubasu, hamachi and mejiro again. Buri, the most widely used word for the mature fish, is used most of the time these days for both young and adult yellowtail.

Buri is a very full-flavored, oil-rich fish. As the sea waters get really cold in the winter months, buri caught in the Japan Sea become even fatter and more hearty. Kan-buri, or cold-weather yellowtail, is regarded as a great delicacy, especially in Toyama and Fukui prefectures on the Noto Peninsula.

If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on it, freshly caught kan-buri is wonderful when it’s simply sliced and eaten raw as sashimi dipped in soy sauce with wasabi. If sashimi is not your thing, buri can be simply grilled or pan-fried as you might do with salmon, but it’s especially tasty if marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, sake and citrus fruit, as in the recipe on this page.

How to buy fresh fish

Smaller fish such as ma-aji and saba are sold whole. When selecting whole fish at the store, look for ones that are very stiff, not soft and pliable. Fish start to rot from the head, so good fresh fish should have clear, glassy eyes and clean-looking gills.

Any Japanese fishmonger, even at the supermarket, will prepare the fish to your specifications if you request it. If you tell the fishmonger that you want to grill the fish whole, they will usually scale the fish, take off the hard bony bit near the tail (zeigo), and take the guts out. (Some people prefer to have the guts left in for their bitter taste, especially with sanma.) If you want to pan-fry the fish, you could say, “San-mai ni oroshite kudasai” (“Please cut it into three pieces”) — which will give you two boneless filets, with the center bone part as the third piece.

Large fish such as buri are usually sold cut into steaks. Look for very firm, bouncy flesh and clear, shiny skin. Fresh fish will never smell “fishy.” The fishmonger’s display shelves should smell only of the sea.

Preparing ma-aji

Here’s a simple technique to make whole salted grilled ma-aji (ma-aji no shio yaki). This method can be used for any whole blue-skinned fish, such as iwashi (sardines), saba or sanma. Other fish that are in season right now and can be cooked his way include kamasu (barracuda), mebaru (rockfish), ebodai (butterfish) and kawahagi (filefish). Ask your fishmonger for more suggestions.

Prepare the fish at least an hour before you plan to cook it. Run your fingers over the skin to see if there are any stray scales, and remove them if needed. (If you don’t have a fish scaler, a handy tool for removing a small amount of scales is a credit card. Just scrape the edge across the skin from tail to head.) Lightly salt the fish on both sides, and leave in the refrigerator for an hour. Grate some daikon radish in the meantime.

When you’re ready to cook the fish, heat up the grill, a fish grilling net or a grill pan. Wipe the fish well with a paper towel. If you have a large fish, make crisscross cuts on both sides with a sharp knife.

When the grill is hot, put the fish on it. The cooking time and the temperature depend on the size of the fish — smaller ones can be quickly grilled over relatively high heat, while larger fish need more time to cook through, so lower the heat to medium or medium-high so that the outsides don’t get too charred. Check for doneness by poking the fish in the center near the bone with the tip of a chopstick or skewer. If the flesh is white, the fish is done, but if it’s still red, it needs a bit more time.

Serve the fish while still sizzling with a mound of grated daikon radish and a little soy sauce.

Tip: If you don’t have a grill, you can cook a whole fish in a nonstick frying pan. Put the fish in a pan that’s been heated over a medium-high flame, and wipe off any oil that is exuded from the fish that pools in the pan with a wadded paper towel as you cook it.

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha International). She writes about bento lunches on justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more on justhungry.com.

Recipe for buri no yu-an zuke (yellowtail marinated in yuzu, sake and soy sauce)

Serves 4

4 Yellowtail steaks — 100 g (3 1/2 oz) each

Yuzu (use lemon if you don’t have yuzu) — 4 slices

Sake — 2 tbsp

Soy sauce — 2 tbsp

Put the yellowtail steaks in a shallow container. Pour the sake and soy sauce over them, and place one slice of yuzu on each steak. Cover, and leave to marinate for at least one hour in the refrigerator, turning the fish over at least two or three times.

When you are ready to cook it, take the fish out of the refrigerator and heat up a nonstick frying pan or a grill pan over medium heat. When the pan is hot, put the fish into the dry, unoiled pan and cook on one side until the surface is dark brown and crispy. It should smell wonderful and toasty — if it smells like it’s burning, lower the heat. Turn over and cook on the other side. Poke the center with the tip of a chopstick or skewer for doneness — the fish should look opaque, not transparent, when it’s done. Eat hot or cold. This is a great way to treat any kind of hearty, oily fish. Marinate the fish as soon as you get it home from the store, for maximum freshness and flavor. If you don’t have yellowtail, try salmon, swordfish, or a big mackerel steak. This is great in a bento box. No additional cooking oil is needed, since there’s plenty of oil in the fish itself.