The humble, versatile mackerel (saba, in Japanese), hits its peak season in the fall. Like other classic fall fish, it used to be fairly affordable, although that is changing due to overfishing. It’s still cheaper than most other fish, though, and can be cooked in all manner of ways — grilled, pan-fried, salted, marinated in salt, sugar and vinegar, and more. It’s also healthy, packed with omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and protein.

The one drawback to mackerel is that it is quite delicate and spoils quickly. Although you can buy prepared mackerel pieces or filets at any supermarket in Japan, it’s best to get a whole fish and filet it yourself, if you’re not too squeamish. The good news is that mackerel is quite easy to break down. Look for a fish with clear, bright eyes (which you can’t check if it’s been cut up).

One of my favorite preparations is saba no miso-ni, mackerel cooked in a rich, miso-based sauce. The key is to first blanch the fish and put it in water, which gets rid of much of its fishiness. Cooking it with plenty of ginger eliminates the rest. This pairs particularly well with white rice.


Serves 2

Prep: 40 mins. (if starting with whole fish); cook: 20 mins.


• 2 whole medium mackerel (about 500 grams each), or 4 cut mackerel pieces totaling 500 grams (see Note below)

• 1 large piece ginger, plus more for garnish

• 3 tablespoons sugar

• 30 milliliters mirin (sweet, fermented cooking alcohol)

• 100 milliliters sake

• 300 milliliters water

• 5 tablespoons white miso


Note: If you are buying cut pieces of mackerel, try to get ones with the bones still attached rather than filets. The bones help hold the fish together.


1. If you are using whole fish, scrape off any scales with the back of a knife. Slice off the heads under the gills. Make a slit on the belly side near the tail aiming towards the head, and open up the fish. Pull out the innards. Carefully wash the fish, rubbing off any bloody parts. Cut off the back and side fins as well as the tail. Cut each piece of fish in half crosswise (perpendicular to the spine), for 2 pieces per fish. Wash off your cutting board, and pat the fish and the board dry.

2. Slice the ginger with the skin left on. Peel some more ginger, and shred it finely for garnish.

3. Put the fish pieces in a colander and pour boiling water over them to blanch. Put the blanched fish pieces in a bowl of cold water to cover. Check the fish for any remaining bloody bits, and rub them off with your fingers. Drain well and pat dry. Make a couple of shallow cuts on the skin side of each piece.

4. Put the sugar, mirin, sake, water and sliced ginger in a large frying pan and bring to a boil. Once boiling, put some of the liquid in a bowl, add the miso and mix to dissolve. Return the miso mix to the frying pan.

5. Gently place the fish in the frying pan skin-side up. Bring the liquid back to a boil, then lower the heat to a bare simmer and cover the fish with a piece of crumpled aluminum foil. Simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, and let the fish cool in the pan for at least 15 minutes — refrigerate overnight if you can.

6. Before serving, reheat the fish, uncovered over medium-low heat. Arrange on plates. Continue simmering the sauce over medium heat until thickened, and pour over the fish. Garnish with the shredded ginger.

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