Tazukuri: an acquired taste worth acquiring

by Rick Lapointe

The o-sechi foods of the New Year exemplify traditional Japanese cuisine, utilizing the fruits of the mountains and the bounty of the ocean to celebrate all of the gifts that nature provides. Nowhere is this land-and-sea pairing more evident than in the classic sanshu-zakana triumvirate of black beans (kuromame), dry-roasted small sardines (tazukuri) and preserved herring roe (kazunoko) used to ring in the New Year holiday.

Black beans obviously come from the field and herring roe from the sea. While sardines are a blessing from the ocean as well, dry-roasted, they straddle the fence between water and earth.

The small, sun-dried sardines (hoshi katakuchi iwashi) used to make tazukuri are about 3 cm in length and are also called gomame. Much smaller sardines are called either chirimen-jako or shirasu-boshi and served dried, raw or simmered with peppercorns. Sardines bigger than 3 or 4 cm are generally slightly dried and poached in sweetened soy and known by various names, most of which include the iwashi sardine moniker.

The characters used to write tazukuri are the pictographs for “field” and the verb “to make.” Combined, they mean “to ready the fields for planting.” In tazukuri at New Year there is a play on tsukuri, another word for the first-course sashimi that generally begins a formal meal. Before refrigeration, in the inland areas where rice is cultivated, fresh sashimi-quality fish was not always available. Small gomame sardines — the same ones fishermen scatter in the waters as bait, as if sowing a “field” in the ocean — were dried, roasted and seasoned for special occasions to make “farmers’ sashimi” or “field tsukuri.”

Tazukuri is one of the foods that would qualify as difficult for a non-Japanese palate to learn to love. There seems to be an aversion, especially on the part of Westerners, to any dish where the head of the animal is left on and the item is prepared whole, no matter how small.

While initially off-putting, tazukuri are whole little fish and not just some other processed finger-food snack. Long before chips, pretzels and cheese puffs, ingenious Japanese devised a delicious way to make a food that otherwise might spoil in the nets by the time they got around to eating it. Like beef jerky, eaten in the West and by Native Americans, tazukuri was never intended to be a meal in itself. Rather, it was meant as a companion for a nice hot cup of sake, nibbled and enjoyed slowly over a long period of time.

The perfect o-tsumami (snack food), tazukuri are full of calcium and other nutrients. Who knows? Once you develop a taste for them, you might not even be able to wait until they appear on the New Year’s table each year.

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The key to making successful tazukuri lies in the dry-roasting. Good sun-dried gomame may be obtained at most New Year’s markets or major department stores. These little dried fish must be further roasted for flavor, to extend their shelf life and to help them absorb the sweet soy-flavored coating. Just like when dry-roasting nuts or seeds, the flame must not be too high, and the pan must be in constant motion so the delicate ingredients do not burn.

I have seen recipes that say when making the dish at home deep-frying the gomame is easier than roasting them. I do not think it is any easier and it will certainly result in an inferior product. Cooling the tazukuri quickly — spread out on a wide surface — will help them retain their luster.

50 grams gomame
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon mirin
1 tablespoon usukuchi shoyu (light soy sauce)

1) Place a large skillet over a medium flame. When pan is hot, add the gomame and dry-roast gently, shaking the pan carefully so the small fish do not burn. Roast until the gomame are crisp and snap in half easily.

2) Remove to dry, clean colander and let any dust and/or small broken pieces fall through to be discarded.

3) Wipe the skillet with a paper towel to remove any residue from the dry-roasting, and while the pan is still hot, return to medium flame and add sugar, mirin and usukuchi shoyu.

4) Quickly bring these ingredients to a boil (there is not enough liquid for a true boil, but the ingredients will begin to bubble vigorously), add the roasted gomame, incorporate well and extinguish the flame.

5) Remove finished tazukuri to a clean sheet pan to cool.

6) Once cool, store in an airtight container until ready to serve. Serves four.

Next week, the third and final o-sechi recipe: kazunoko.

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