The sanma (Pacific saury) that’s caught at this time of year is rich with heart-healthy oils, and is considered a quintessential autumn delicacy in Japan.
But unlike other fall delicacies such as matsutake mushrooms, sanma has traditionally been considered affordable. This national favorite is in crisis, however, and seems to be following the pattern of other popular fish like bluefin tuna and eel.
There are dire reports about how the catch this year marked an all-time low. Factories that process the fish for canning have had to shut down or cut back their production. What’s more, the fish that are being caught are smaller than usual, and the scarcity is driving prices up.
There are various theories as to why the catch is so low, ranging from overfishing to a change in water temperatures in the seas near Japan triggering a severe drop in plankton levels.
The stature of Pacific saury as a harbinger of the abundant autumn season, like so many other traditions we think of as having been around for centuries, is actually not that old. During much of the Edo Period (1603-1868), oily, blue-skinned fish such as the Pacific saury were considered to be low-class and undesirable, while white fish were thought to be more refined.
It was only after a series of natural and man-made disasters in the late 18th century, including earthquakes, poor harvests, fires and severe food shortages, that the populace began to be less picky about their fish choices. By the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, Pacific saury were well loved by the working classes of Edo (present-day Tokyo).
One sign of how popular and beloved the fish became is that in the Taisho Era (1912-1928), it acquired its current name, which comprises three kanji meaning “autumn sword fish,” because a fresh one is so firm that it stands up straight like a sword when held upright. While most fish names consist of a single kanji with the “fish” radical on the left, the humble sanma thus has a special status.
The first signs that the Pacific saury catch was in trouble came about 20 years ago. Still, it remained very affordable, typically costing less than ¥100 each for a fish that could serve one. But in the last three to four years, dire warnings have been sounded, and this year the situation seems to be the worst so far.
Dealing with fish shortages in this day and age is simply an unfortunate fact of life. You can still buy Pacific saury, of course, even though it costs two to three times more than in previous years.
Most people like it best when it’s simply grilled, with the head and guts intact — the bitterness of the guts is beloved by aficionados.
When preparing sanma, salt the fish generously, rub the salt in with your hands, and grill on a preheated fish grill until the skin starts to turn golden brown and pops. Serve with some grated daikon and a lemon wedge.
Other blue-skinned oil-rich fish are not in crisis however, and they, too, are delicious at this time of year. These include saba (mackerel), sawara (Japanese Spanish mackerel or seer fish), and iwashi (sardines). This savory-sweet, ginger-rich recipe will work with any oily fish, and is delicious served with shinmai (new-harvest rice). For this month’s installment, I’ve used inexpensive, delicious fat sardines that are still plentiful — for now.
Sardines served in ginger sauce
Serves two as a main side dish to a Japanese meal
8 to 10 very fresh iwashi (sardines), weighing about 80g to 100g each with their heads on
50 g fresh ginger root (the skin should not be hard and woody)
200 ml water
4 tablespoons sake
4 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin
2 tablespoons sugar
Cut or fold a piece of kitchen parchment paper so that it fits inside the pan you’ll be using. This will act as a lid while the fish simmers.
Scrape the fish with the back of a knife to remove the scales. Cut off the heads and make a slit on the belly side of each fish. Scrape out the guts and rinse the fish well under running water to remove any scales and guts. Pat dry with paper towels.
Scrub the ginger root with a stiff vegetable brush. Do not peel. Finely julienne the ginger.
Put the water, sake, soy sauce, mirin, sugar and about one-third of the ginger in a pan. Place the pan on medium heat. When the simmering liquid is just starting to bubble, put in the fish, and scatter the rest of the ginger on top. Wet the paper “lid” and place directly on top of the simmering fish. Cook over medium-low heat (the liquid should bubble gently) for about 15 minutes.
Leave to cool a little in the liquid before serving with plain rice. This can be kept in the refrigerator for two to three days, well covered.