Probably the biggest challenge I faced as a young apprentice in a traditional Japanese restaurant was cooking two meals a day — lunch and dinner — for the 60-year-old chef and his wife. The challenge was twofold: I had to make something that would please the finicky palate of a man who had eaten hardcore good food everyday since he left junior high to become a cook and do the whole thing on a budget that would make a housewife cringe.

One way to get around the budget and feed the restaurant staff was to make good use of leftovers and food that didn’t make it to the customers’ plate. Fish can generally be used sashimi for only one day before it loses quality. Depending on the kind of fish, it must then be salted and grilled, or put to use in some other way, often being passed along to the younger cooks to use. However, these scraps and secondhand foodstuffs don’t always fill the pot, and invariably, food must be bought just for the purpose of keeping the hungry staff’s bellies full.

Thank goodness for the Kuromon market. The young cooks mobbing the Kuromon arcade in downtown Osaka every morning are often looking for something cheap to use for the makanai, the “family meal” for the restaurant staff. The shopkeepers, therefore, stock the shelves — alongside the premium fish and produce procured for restaurant customers — with cheap fish and basic produce to fill the void. One day’s makanai menu might include inexpensive chicken thighs marinated, fried and served as kara-age or tatsuta-age. If eggs are on sale, that day’s makanai might feature an egg dish such as dashi-maki tamago or something similar. If nothing else is priced to fill the basket, a cook is sure to find cheap, salted mackerel.

Salted mackerel, shio saba, is caught on large factory-size boats that spend weeks, and sometimes months, out on the open seas. The fish are caught, cleaned, salted and frozen right on board, making it possible to haul in big volumes at relatively low costs. The fish may be found in markets like Kuromon, in large barrels, for anywhere from 50 yen to around 300 yen each. Many local supermarkets regularly advertise cheap shio saba for one day every week, to reel in customers.

Cheap and easy senba-jiru

Originally salted to prolong life in a time of no refrigeration, saba is today salted as much for the taste as it is for the preservative effect. The easiest way to prepare shio saba — and indeed one of the tastiest methods — is to simply grill it well and serve with a good amount of grated daikon. There are, in addition, several simple dishes, seemingly developed just to deal with these whole salted mackerel. One of the simplest, and one that I prepared many a time to feed the chef in those early days of my training, is Senba-jiru.

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Shiru (or jiru) is the generic term for soup or stock. Senba is the area of Osaka where many of the fishmongers work and live. This Senba soup combines salted mackerel fillets, for a robust taste, and daikon, for depth of flavor. Served year-round, it is best in fall, as the mackerel is fatter and the daikon crisper.

When making this soup at home, it is easiest — and cheapest — to buy presalted fish, but if you do buy a fresh whole mackerel, it is easy to salt yourself: the flavor will be all the better. Stock is not generally taken from salted meat or fish, but in this case, the salting releases the flavors into the soup. To eliminate excess salt and unwanted flavors, the fish and bones are blanched (shimofuri) with hot water prior to use.

1 mackerel filleted and quartered (450-500 grams)
salt (if not presalted shio saba)
1,500 ml water
15 grams konbu
1 cup daikon, cut into thin, wide strips
15-30 ml usukuchi shoyu
50 ml sake
1 bunch scallions, whole or sliced, for garnish

1) Salted or not, fillet the fish and reserve the head and backbone.

2) If mackerel has not been presalted, generously salt both sides of the fillets and set aside. Salt, as well, the backbone and head of the mackerel for the soup stock, let sit for at least 20 minutes before using.

3) For the soup, blanch the bones and head by placing them in a bowl and pouring a large amount of boiling water over them, immediately running under cool water to rinse and prevent overblanching.

4) Place blanched bones and head, and the konbu into a medium-size stockpot and cover with 1,500 ml of water. Bring to a boil slowly, skimming the foam off the top, and then reduce soup to a simmer for 15 minutes.

5) Strain soup though a piece of heavy duty kitchen towel or muslin gauze placed in a colander, and reserve.

6) In a pot, arrange daikon strips and blanched fillet pieces; cover with hot soup stock and bring to a simmer long enough to cook fillets thoroughly. Adjust seasoning with usukuchi shoyu as needed. Add sake just prior to serving.

7) Place one or two fillets in each soup plate, cover with hot soup and serve garnished with a liberal amount of scallions. Serves four.

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