Food & Drink | NATURE'S PANTRY

Bringing shottsuru fish sauce back from the brink of extinction

by Nancy Singleton Hachisu

Contributing Writer

A whopping four hours on the shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Akita and another hour on the local train to the city of Oga, located on a small peninsula jutting out from northwestern Akita Prefecture, brings us to Moroi Jozo, the soy sauce maker who single-handedly revived shottsuru production.

Shottsuru is a fish sauce made in Akita Prefecture from sandfish (hatahata). Though fish sauce was historically made in numerous locales along the almost 30,000-kilometer-long Japanese coastline, nowadays the region is one of just two major producing areas, the other being Ishikawa Prefecture, where the sauce is called ishiri or ishiru.

Other minor producing regions exist: The Seto Inland Sea area has maintained a minute production of sand lance fish sauce (ikanago shoyu) and Hokkaido is developing salmon fish sauce due to its extensive salmon catch, but fish sauce has historically been a hyperlocal ingredient in Japan.

The popularity of Southeast Asian foods in the ’80s brought renewed attention to the condiment, yet Japan has yet to reach the same heights of the worldwide craze for the flavor. And conversely, the world has yet to discover that Japan is, to me, the best source to satisfy the appetite for well-made versions of the condiment. Japanese fish sauce is generally milder than Southeast Asian varieties and the gentle flavor is easily incorporated into many foods, both Japanese and Western alike.

Hideki Moroi, a third-generation soy sauce, miso and pickle maker, speaks about his relatively recently acquired fish saucemaking craft with quiet dedication, yet an almost pent-up passion lies beneath his words. He is already selling his products in Australia, Hong Kong and Thailand and is thinking forward toward introducing shottsuru to more places around the world.

Forty years ago, around 30 companies were still making shottsuru in Akita Prefecture. Yet in 1992-93, the number of shottsuru companies took a drastic dive due to the old age of the producers and lack of demand, leaving only three or four companies still making the sauce.

Moroi, noticing that the viability of commercial shottsuru was imminently threatened and despite being told he was “stupid” to do so, set about to enter the market himself. He began experimenting with the process of making shottsuru and by 2000, had a product he was proud to sell.

In 2004, he attended the inaugural issue of Slow Fish, organized by Slow Food in Genoa, Italy, and it was through his involvement with Slow Food that Moroi was able to initially find routes for selling his fish sauce in Tokyo. Since then, Moroi Jozo has become the poster child for Japanese fish sauce, which is being used in several of Joel Robuchon’s restaurants in Paris.

Sandfish season is from Dec. 1 to Dec. 20, but is most bountiful around Dec. 5 and 6, and it is in this period that the sandfish shottsuru fermentation process begins. Because 89 percent of Moroi Jozo’s fish sauce is made from sandfish, early December is a crucial period for the company.

Three years ago, Moroi also began to make other fish sauces besides the traditional sandfish shottsuru, from fish and seafood available throughout the year: oyster, tuna, sea bream, shrimp and squid.

The bottle for each variety has a striking design and the sauces have deliciously distinct flavor profiles. Although some of the newer varieties of fish sauce are fermented for shorter times, Moroi ferments most of his fish sauce for about three years in wooden barrels or enamel tanks and uses from 10 to 23 percent sun-dried Japanese sea salt, depending on the fish or shellfish.

He also makes an impressive 10-year-aged shottsuru that is arguably the most elegant and nuanced fish sauce in the world. Pricey — but not overpriced, at ¥3,240 — the 10-year-aged fish sauce comes in a slender, hand-numbered bottle and makes for a wonderful gift.

My first contact with Moroi Jozo was 10 or more years ago when looking for bottles of Japanese fish sauce to bring as gifts to chef-friends in the U.S. Down to the last minute, I dashed off an email in English asking if the company could dispatch an order swiftly. Not daunted by the English, Moroi responded affirmatively and the package arrived a day later, each bottle of the 10-year shottsuru bubble wrapped and coming with a gold gift bag. This attention to detail and great kindness made Moroi my friend for life, and I have often taken his shottsuru as gifts to the U.S. over the intervening years.

In 2013, when I was writing my second book, “Preserving the Japanese Way,” I called Moroi in the hopes of arranging a trip there with my photographer to capture the sandfish catch and the making of the mash in December. Particularly drawn to absorbing the knowledge and heart of older Japanese country women, an extended telephone conversation with Moroi’s mother further instilled in me this intense desire to visit.

Alas time was not on my side and the visit was not to be, but I finally made it to Moroi Jozo in July this year. Walking through the facility and taking in the fermenting vats full of sweetly fragrant fish sauce mash first hand, all of my imagined perceptions of the company and the man were confirmed. Moroi is serious about his craft and this quietly, yet naturally complex fermented condiment is poised to take over the world market.

Although I love many of the new types of shottsuru that Moroi is making, I am a creature of habit. And when recently in the States doing food events, I used little spray bottles of the original Moroi Jozo shottsuru I had first bought 10 years ago. I sprayed the sauce on ripe garden tomatoes and drizzled them with a little of my brother-in-law’s Frantoio Grove olive oil: so simple, but it was a standout favorite. At first glance, shottsuru might seem foreign or unapproachable, but it can easily be used as a replacement for salt. Think of it as a salt-plus with a depth of flavor not found in salt. Think of it as umami in a bottle, with all of the good points of MSG, but none of the bad.

Kasezawa 176, Funagawa-minato, Funagawa, Oga, Akita 010-0511; www.shottsuru.jp