Above the counter of the small kappo-style restaurant where I apprenticed hung a small scroll inscribed with a seasonal poem that was changed at the beginning of every month. In October, the simple verse read, “Aki no saba, Wakasa umare, Kyo sodachi. (The autumn mackerel, born in Wakasa, raised in Kyoto).” This short phrase was a reminder of the life of the food we prepare — its season, its origins, its destination.

Saba, the humble mackerel, can be used to make many dishes.

The mackerel is one of the most important, abundant and affordable fish in Japanese cuisine. Though available year-round, it tastes best in fall when the fat content of the fish increases. Salted and grilled or in preparations that contain no additional fat, mackerel is a delicious addition to many autumn meals.

For hundreds of years, the lowly mackerel, caught and salted off the Sea of Japan, has been served forth at the tables of the city’s finest restaurants. Prepared in a variety of ways, this little fish comes alive on the plate, as well as in the words we use to describe it.

For Saba no Miso-ni, the mackerel is seared with a torch.

In Japanese, kanji are used to write most nouns. Nearly all fish names are written with a single kanji character that is comprised of two parts, called a hen by Japanese and referred to as radicals by linguists. The radical used in the left side of the majority of nouns describing fish is the pictograph character meaning fish (sakana hen). The right-side hen is generally a radical with an independent meaning that gives us a clue as to the actual fish it is describing. For Japanese, remembering the kanji for each fish becomes a game.

“Sakana hen ni . . . (Write the radical for fish, plus . . . )” is the game, and those who are good at it can name dozens and dozens of fish in this way. Common mackerel (saba) is written with the radical for fish plus the radical for blue (sakana hen ni aoi) because of its silvery blue, iridescent skin.

Over the next three weeks we will look at three preparations of saba: simmered; in a savory soup; and, finally, salted and dressed with vinegar.

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Saba no miso-ni

After cooking, the vegetables and mackerel are covered in miso.

This classic dish sees the fish quickly cooked with sake and water to eliminate any fishy odor — found in even the freshest saba — and then mellowed by slowly simmering in sweetened miso.

Use the freshest mackerel you can find. Do not use presalted shio saba. If you are not comfortable filleting the fish yourself, choose a nice whole fish at the market and let the fishmonger do the work. This is best done as close to the time you are going to cook as possible.

1 mackerel filleted and quartered (450-500 grams)
1/2 cup sake
1 cup water
1 tablespoon usukuchi shoyu
2 tablespoons ginger, cut into a fine julienne
1/2carrot, cut into thin, wide strips
1/4 daikon, cut into thin, wide strips
1 1/2 cups sweetened miso
1 bunch scallions, finely chopped for garnish

Sweetened miso

200 grams white miso (shiro miso, or saikyo miso)
200 grams country-style miso (inaka miso)
70 grams sugar
70 ml mirin
50 ml sake

1) Prepare sweetened miso by combining ingredients in a nonreactive bowl and set aside. This recipe yields more than 1 1/2 cups — refrigerate unused portion and use later when sauteeing thin strips of pork or chicken.

2) In a hot broiling oven or with a torch, sear the skin side of the mackerel, being careful not to cook the fish.

3) In a wide-bottomed pot or frying pan, place four cuts of mackerel skin side up so they do not overlap, cover with ginger and thinly sliced vegetables.

4) Add sake and bring to a quick boil. Add water and bring to a boil once more. Finally, add the shoyu and return to boil one more time. This process helps eliminate any fishy odor.

5) Add sweetened miso and cover with an otoshi buta (drop lid) or a piece of foil cut to the size of the pan. When miso comes to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes. If miso starts to thicken too much, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of water, as necessary.

6) Adjust for taste with a little usukuchi shoyu if needed. Place a piece of mackerel on each serving dish, and cover in vegetables and miso sauce. Garnish with a good amount of chopped scallions. Serves four.

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