Fall in Japan has always been the season for oily fish. They are considered to be at their peak when the waters turn cold and the fish put on fat to prepare for the winter. The Pacific saury (sanma) is so closely associated with this season that the three kanji characters for it mean “fall sword fish.”

However, in recent years the Pacific saury catch has been falling precipitously. Last year’s numbers were the lowest ever recorded, and the catch this year even worse, as little as 10 percent of 2019’s numbers during the same period. The mackerel catch, too, has been very low. One big reason is the rising temperature of the seas around Japan and worldwide, a consequence of the climate crisis.

The sardine (called iwashi or ma-iwashi in Japanese) is one oily fish that is still available and relatively affordable — although it, too, has been adversely affected by rising sea temperatures. Although it’s often been considered an afterthought in the culinary fish world (the kanji character for it means “weak fish”) because of its modest size and — until recently — low price, the humble sardine is as healthy as other oily fish, if not more so. It’s packed with heart-healthy unsaturated fats called omega-3 fatty acids and, depending on the cooking method, the tiny bones can be eaten quite readily. And thanks to its undetectable to very low levels of mercury, it’s also considered to be a “safe fish.”

One fish, two fish: When purchasing raw sardines, make sure they’re very fresh, with firm flesh, clear eyes and no “fishy” smell. | MAKIKO ITOH
One fish, two fish: When purchasing raw sardines, make sure they’re very fresh, with firm flesh, clear eyes and no “fishy” smell. | MAKIKO ITOH

From a cook’s point of view, sardines are also one of the easiest fish to handle. You don’t even need a knife to prepare them: You can easily run your fingernails down the belly side to open them up and remove the guts and bones. Even the scales, which are very tiny and soft, can be removed with your hands, although I prefer to use a plastic card (such as an expired credit card or shop card) for this purpose. Simply run an impeccably clean card over the fish from head to tail several times, and rinse off the scales.

When purchasing sardines, make sure they are extremely fresh. The eyes of the fish should be bright and clear, and each fish should be quite stiff, not soft and floppy. They also should not smell “fishy” in any way.

This recipe utilizes a traditional method for cooking oily fish that’s usually used for the Japan unagi (Japanese eel), another oily fish that has become very expensive in recent years as its numbers have dwindled; it was put on the endangered species list by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2014. Japanese eel are also a difficult fish for the average home cook to prepare, since you need to kill it right before cooking. Sardines, on the other hand, are very easy to prepare, and the savory-sweet sauce is a great foil for the hearty flavor of the fish.

Recipe: How to make sardine kabayaki (fillets with a savory-sweet sauce)

Serves 2 to 3

Prep: 10 to 15 mins., cook: 10 mins.

500 grams fresh whole sardines, large ones if possible (80 to 100 grams each)

3 tablespoons sake

3 tablespoons mirin (sweet, fermented cooking alcohol)

3 tablespoons dark soy sauce

1½ tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon grated ginger

Vegetable oil for cooking

500 to 600 grams hot, cooked plain rice

A few sprigs of fresh mitsuba parsley

Shichimi tōgarashi chili spice mix, to taste

1. Scrape the scales off the sardines using your fingernails or a plastic card. Cut the heads off with a sharp knife. Open up each fish along the belly side using your fingers, and rinse out the intestines under running water. Pull out the backbone and remove it, pulling or cutting off the tail, too. Repeat for all the fish.

2. Spread the fish flat and pat dry with paper towels.

3. Combine the sake, mirin, soy sauce, sugar and grated ginger in a small bowl.

4. Heat up a large frying pan with a little vegetable oil over medium heat. Put a single layer of the sardines in the frying pan, skin side down. Don’t overcrowd the pan — fry the fish in batches if necessary. Pan fry the fish on the skin side for two minutes, then turn over and fry on the other side for one to two minutes, depending on how big the sardines are. Take the fried fish out of the pan and set aside.

5. Wipe the grease out of the frying pan with paper towels. Add the ginger cooking sauce from Step 3 to the pan, and bring to a boil over high heat. When it’s bubbling lightly, lower the heat to medium and put the fish in. Cook while shaking the pan occasionally and spooning the sauce over the fish, until the sauce is reduced and a little sticky.

6. Serve the fish on a bed of hot rice, spooning over any sauce left in the pan. Sprinkle with the shichimi tōgarashi and garnish with a few sprigs of mitsuba.

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