Japanese fish sauce may not be as widely known as its counterparts from Thailand and Vietnam, but demand for it is growing sharply on the heels of the popularity of ethnic cuisine in Japan.

For years, Japanese fish sauce had been eclipsed by the ever-popular soy sauce, and the dominance on the domestic market of Thailand’s Nampla-brand fish sauce and Vietnam’s Nuoc Mam.

Japanese varieties have been available in limited areas, surviving over the years as “shottsuru” in Akita Prefecture, “ishiru” on the Noto Peninsula of Ishikawa Prefecture and “ikanago shoyu” soy sauce in Kagawa Prefecture.

But consumer demand for natural foods and the spread of ethnic dishes, including those originating in Thailand and Vietnam, have encouraged many people turned off by the strong smell that characterizes most fish sauces to embrace the domestic version.

Japanese fish sauce is now being used in some processed foods and is increasingly appearing on dining tables. It is generally made from salted fresh fish and shellfish that are soaked in containers, fermented and filtered.

Ishikawa prefectural officials said that after just scraping by, their local fish sauce manufacturers are staging a comeback, with output soaring from about 33 tons in 1987 to some 200 tons last year.

The town of Echizen, Fukui Prefecture, has come up with a new sauce called “totodashi” based on codfish residue and squid innards. Last year more than 10,000 bottles of totodashi were produced.

“It is a robust fish sauce,” said Kihei Kabeshita, secretary general of the Echizen Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “It does not smell and is rather close to ordinary (soy) sauce.”

The town harvests a wealth of fish and shellfish, including crabs, sardines and squid. However, food-processing firms previously threw away large quantities of internal organs and fish residue.

To revive the manufacturing of fish sauce, the chamber sought help from Tokyo University of Agriculture researchers.

Professor Kiyokazu Kakuta explained to manufacturers that malted rice and leavening accelerate fermentation of fish parts. This method allows protein to dissolve completely and helps produce a more palatable taste.

The university’s fermentation research department is also helping Kochi Prefecture make sauce from bonito and the city of Kushiro, Hokkaido, make it from salmon.

Tadanobu Nakadai, chief researcher of the Japan Soy Sauce Research Institute, said, “Modern-day Japanese have increasingly sophisticate palates. To keep up with them, (people) are taking a new look at fish sauce as a hidden flavoring agent for ‘yakiniku’ grilled meat sauce. Major soy sauce makers are also taking part (in the manufacture) of fish sauce.”

Shiga Prefecture’s agricultural experimental center and a high school are meanwhile busy researching whether nonnative bluegill in Lake Biwa can be used to produce fish sauce commercially.

Domestic production of fish sauce is estimated at 1,000 tons, while imports are said to total 5,000 tons, double the volume shipped to Japan five years ago.

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