Food & Drink | NATURE'S PANTRY

Salted and dried on Japan's far side

by Nancy Singleton Hachisu

Special To The Japan Times

Friendly faces call out greetings as I stroll through the morning market in Wajima on the northern end of Noto Peninsula, Ishikawa Prefecture. I’m a big supporter of the fish sauce and fermented foods sold here, and it seems some vendors have remembered me. There may be less wrinkled women selling their wares here, but a fresh crop of grandchildren have been slowly taking over some of the stalls. There’s hope for the future of Wajima’s traditional seafood, such as himono (air-dried fish), fish fermented in nuka (rice bran) and ishiru (fermented fish sauce).

While most of the small fish-processing operations are located in converted garages connected to family homes along the warren of narrow streets in the Fugeshimachi district, Yoshie Minamidani’s family work from their home in the hills above Wajima City Hall. An elegant structure with whitewash walls offset by dark brown wooden posts and beams, their home was once an upscale Japanese restaurant run by Minamidani’s father.

Minamidani is friendly, approachable and all too willing to show us their operation. However, due to our late arrival we have held up the fish-drying process so her husband is anxious to get the last fish into the drying cage. The cage is an ingenious structure akin to a shelved closet with netting as the “walls” and “floor.” The cage sits under an overhang to protect the fish from direct sunlight, but is also adjacent to a bluff that promotes air currents. Moving air is the key to producing the best air-dried fish — you need a location where the air passes through freely and consistently. According to Minamidani, these conditions ensure “the flesh becomes taut and the flavor concentrated.” But this is difficult to do in hot weather, which is why locals typically stop air-drying from spring to fall. The day we visited in early April was probably the last day that Minamidani and her husband would be using their outdoor drying cage. Since the couple make their living selling air-dried fish year-round, they will move the drying operation into a temperature-controlled, humidity-free room with fans simulating the sea breeze.

Wajima is a mid-sized port with about 200 fishing boats going out when weather permits. Each evening at 5 p.m. an announcement comes over the public loudspeaker informing residents about the coming weather conditions, especially if setting out of harbor may be dangerous.

When conditions are fair, the boats leave after midnight and bring back their catch before dawn. Their catches are unloaded and auctioned off at the docks. From there, wholesale vendors sell the fish to restaurants, inns, small market vendors and fish-processing operations such as the one run by the Minamidanis. This short supply chain ensures that the fish you see at the Wajima morning market or in local restaurants have come in fresh that morning.

The process for making air-dried fish generally begins right after the market closes at noon. It starts with the fish caught that morning being salted; each producer has their own salting method. Minamidani follows her paternal grandmother’s technique, which involves a moderate sprinkling of salt and no rinse before hanging. She leaves the fish in the salt or soused in soy sauce for one hour before hanging or drying them on racks. Smaller fish remain whole and are threaded through the mouth and gills for hanging. Medium-sized fish are gutted and splayed whole, butterfly-like, and larger fish are filleted — both types are laid on drying racks stretched with netting.

Minamidani’s eyes light up when she speaks of her grandmother, though a note of sadness creeps into her voice at the mention of her old teacher’s passing. Minamidani’s morning market education began while she was still only in elementary school when she first helped her grandmother. After graduating junior high school, she chose to attend night high school and spent her mornings manning a booth with her grandmother at the Wajima morning market. And now her husband and mother support her in this family endeavor. Her husband helps treat the fish and her mother helps man their market stall. As the face of their business, Minamidani has an approachable demeanor. While she does not have English skills, she has people skills, and interacts comfortably with the non-Japanese visitors to the market.

The good news for all of us is that Minamidani and her husband are willing to package their air-dried fish and send them via a Japanese delivery company to addresses in Japan. The future of local produce like their’s lies in the hands of consumers who are willing to shop outside the supermarket chains that tend to hurt Japan’s small-scale producers.

Air-dried fish can keep for four days in the fridge or about a month in the freezer. At the market they are sold by the “plate”: a 20-by-18-centimeter plastic receptacle. A plate typically holds about five fish and the price per plate varies from ¥500 to ¥1,000, depending on the fish.

Though perhaps not convenient for urban dwellers, cooking air-dried fish over charcoal embers is pretty spectacular. Alternatively, grilling on a low flame works well or even on a frying pan lined with cooking paper. Begin cooking the fish with the skin side closest to the heat source (skin up for grilling, skin down for stove-top cooking), but cook both sides lightly until the natural oils begin to bubble and the surface of the fish develops some light browning.

While air-dried fish are typically served at breakfast or lunch, they make a tasty accompaniment to drinks before dinner.

Yoshie Minamidani’s stall is No. 567 at the Wajima Morning Market, Asaichi-dori, Kawai-machi, Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture; 0768-22-7300 or 090-2374-7361 (Japanese only); open 8 a.m.-12 noon. For inquiries, email miyusyogosarage@docomo.ne.jp.

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