In empty lots close to the piers of small fishing towns, up and down the coast of Japan, stand huge drying racks, hung heavy with the gutted, cleaned and butterflied morning catch. Empty, these racks look like a fantastical gymnastic apparatus. Fully laden, they resemble rows of clotheslines strung with mittens, hats and socks, which on closer inspection are revealed to be fish, squid and marine vegetation.

Quickly passed over a flame in the kitchen or, better yet, briefly seared over hot coals right beside the racks, these dried fish may be grilled to bring out intense flavor — the perfect complement to a warm jigger of nihonshu.

In the days before modern refrigeration, one common way to preserve foods was to eliminate water content by drying. This process drives out the essential moisture that many food-spoiling pathogens need to survive. Salting meats before drying speeds up the process, additionally inhibits bacteria growth and adds flavor to the final product.

Drying can be accomplished in several ways. All of the methods come under a category of washoku known as hoshimono or kanbutsu, two ways of saying “dried things.” Each word has its own reading, but the readings are often interchanged and forced. (The word kanbutsu can also mean “groceries” in a broader sense, and “hoshimono” can also mean “dried laundry”; context is everything.)

Okage-boshi is the method of drying something in the shade. On hot summer days, the heat can be too strong and the food could possibly spoil. In this case, okage-boshi is the best way to preserve food quality. A good breeze is essential to this process.

Tennen-boshi means drying out in the open, under the sun. On the coast, this method is used to dry fish in cold weather; a good breeze and the gentle sun dry food perfectly.

Hi-boshi can mean two different things — drying under the sun, or drying over a flame — depending on the “hi” character used. Most commonly it would be taken to mean drying over a flame. There are variations on this drying method, which is often done in a small smokehouse. The drying items can be directly over the flame, or off to the side, and smoke can be employed for flavor or not.

Before anything is dried it must be prepared. Generally fish must first be cleaned and butterflied — split open. Next in the preparation process is salting. Almost all drying involves at least some salting at this point. Next a fish may be further seasoned — with a dry rub or a wet marinade. Once cleaned and seasoned, fish may be preserved using any of the drying methods described above.

What does all this drying have to do with the grilled fish course in a traditional Japanese meal? After drying, especially when the item has been smoked, fish and other seafood may often be eaten with no further preparation — think fish jerky.

However, some dried fish — sold in the refrigerated section of the market — must be briefly grilled before consumption.

Grilling quickly (and there is a specific Japanese word that means to briefly grill, aburu) brings out the deep flavor and aroma of the fish. In restaurants very fresh fish is often dried overnight just to simulate the taste and effect — this is called ichiya-boshi.

At home there are many ways of enjoying dried grilled fish. First and foremost is sourcing it from the large selection of dried and partially dried fish available at the market. At home you may also dry your own fish in your refrigerator.

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Sanma no mirin-boshi

Any fish that is soaked in a mirin-based marinade and dried may be called mirin-boshi — often small silver-skinned fish like koaji are used. Other fish, like the ubiquitous sanma, may also be prepared successfully in this way. The fish should be cleaned and butterflied — the bones may be left in or removed. Once opened, a light salting and a brief pause is best before marinating in equal parts mirin and sake, with a touch of usukuchi shoyu (light soy sauce). When grilling the fish, be careful to use a medium flame so the sugars in the mirin don’t burn.

Sanma or aji
1 cup of mirin
1 cup of sake
2 tablespoons of usukuchi shoyu

1) Clean and butterfly fish. Lightly salt the skin and flesh sides and let rest — skin-side down — for 30 minutes.

2) In a medium bowl or shallow dish combine the mirin, sake and soy.

3) Wipe any moisture off the surface of the fish with a clean towel and place in the mirin marinade for one hour.

4) Remove the fish from the marinade and drain on an inclined cutting board to remove any excess liquid.

5) Once completely drained, place in an open container and place unwrapped in the refrigerator, near the fan.

6) After 12-24 hours drying in the refrigerator the fish may be grilled immediately over a medium flame, or wrapped and stored in the refrigerator for up to one week before grilling.

7) Serve with a wedge of sudachi citrus or lemon.

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