My Eyes Opened to the Delights of Sardine (iwashi, 鰯) Cuisine
By Avi Landau
Being a bachelor who does not like to cook, my friend Kenichi Sugimoto ( affectionately called SUGI-SAN by his friends), buys prepared foods or eats out- for practically every meal. He is also always very particular in his preference for only the freshest, seasonal ingredients- possibly a result of his having been born and raised in Niigata Prefecture, in a part of Japan rich in seafood, rice and (especially) sake.
Over the years, he has become quite the gourmet, having explored countless eateries of all sorts in Tsukuba, Tokyo, and beyond.
So naturally, whenever I am lucky enough to meet him, I ask him if he has found any good new places
Last week when I saw him I asked ‘ What`s good to eat this season’ ?
With hardly any hesitation at all he replied: ‘ SARDINES ‘ !.
I have to admit that my first reaction was skepticism. I mean, sardines are alright and all that- especially out of a can on a hiking trip or while camping, but I had also found the sardines at sushi restaurants to be too FISHY for my taste and had not ordered IWASHI (sardines) toppings in years.
I also knew from my studies of Japanese history and folklore that sardines had long been among the cheapest of all fishes- used as animal feed, dog food and even as fertilizer.
The residents of Tsukuba`s old neighborhood`s even use sardine heads ( in combination with thorny leaves) as amulets which are supposed to keep bad luck and evil out- through the working of their fishy smell!
But since he went on to speak so enthusiastically about this humble fish, I got drawn into the excitement as well and I agreed to meet him the next evening at an Izakaya-style restaurant in Tsukuba called TAISHO BEKKAN, which he said specialized in dishes which made use of the freshest sardines brought in daily from the fishing port of Choshi in Chiba Prefecture.
When we got there I noticed that there were 11 different iwashi items om the menu!
I let SUGI-SAN do all the ordering for me- even the drinks! We started off with some sake out of a cedar-wood barrel (TARU ZAKE) served in cedar-wood boxes- along with some salt for coating the rim.The cedar-wood added a delighful flavor accent to the rice wine- and this turned out to be the first of the evening`s many pleasant surprises.
The first dish to be brought to the table was the KARA-AGE, sardines which had been deep fried in long strips- heads, tails and all ( though I guess the guts had been removed). This turned out to be so delicately light, crisp and tasty (and to go so well with the sake) that I quickly gobbled up my share- leaving nothing behind- not a crumb!
Then came the sashimi- the plain raw sardines served on a bed of radish and shiso leaves and topped with some chopped leeks. There was also a dollop of a flavorful miso paste on the serving board.
A hesitant first bite soon gave way to tears of delight as a found that the IWASHI served here was not fishy at all- but buttery soft and deeply flavorfull.Not a bit FISHY!
The waiter told me that sardines go bad very quickly and have to be served and eaten as quicly as possible after being hauled in. These must have just been brought in from the port.
He also explained how there are different IN seasons for sardines, depending on what part of Japan you are in. TAISHO BEKKAN gets its sardines from the Choshi Port in Chiba Prefecture, and the fish from there are best duiring the rainy season and through the rest of the summer.
What came next was the most unusal dish of the evening, a NAMERO, which is a way of preparing fresh fish popular in Chiba Prefecture. The fresh raw sardines are minced amd mixed with miso paste, leeks and shiso leaves. The result (at leat at the TAISHO BEKKAN) are sublime
Each of these and the subsequent dishes we were served were so consistantly fresh and tasty that the only trouble we had that evening was trying to decide which one of them was actually the best (no conclusion was ever arrived at on this matter).
The TAISHO BEKKAN is located in Takezono, Tsukuba across the street to the north of the Kasumi supermarket. Check the map here:
SARDINES (IWASHI) IN JAPANESE HISTORY AND CULTURE
The Japanese name for the sardine- IWASHI (鰯) is said to derive from words meaning the WEAK FISH (since they were near thr bottom of the food chain) or the FISH OF THE COMMON PEOPLE.
Evidence of humans having eaten or used sardines in some way have been found at numerous archaeological sights throughout Japan dating from the Jomon and Yayoi Periods (from 10,000 years ago up to 1,700 years ago)
Officila wooden record tablets discovered at the site of the old Heijo-Kyo Capital seem to indicate that the worlers whose duty it was to squeeze oil out of seasme seeds were fed on sardines.
However, Lady Murasaki Shikibu, the writer of the Tale of Genji- considered to be the world`s first novel. DID eat this fish, and after that, whenever it was eaten by the ladies of the Heian Period court it was referred to as murasaki, omuro, or ohoso ( the slender fish).
Though their ranks are now depleted from overfishing, in former times the seas around Japan teemed with sardines. Schools of them near the surface made the ocean look as if it were going to explode.
The great Heian Period poetess Izumi Shikibu wrote: HI NO MOTO NI IWAHARE TAMOU IWASHIMIZU MANUNANU HITO WA ARASHI ZO TO OMOU (ひのもとにいははれ給ふいわし水まぬなぬ人はあらしとそおもふ)
which I translate as: In this country, those who go to buy sardines being pulled from the sea start to think that a storm is coming!
Sometime in the early 17th century, the idea of pulling in huge hauls of sardines with ntes was put into action in Chiba Prefecture- which to this day is famous for its (decreasing population of) sardines.
And most interestingly (for me) the people in the countryside use sardine heads fastened to their doorposts to keep misfortune away. These are put up anew each February.The mechanism which is believed to worl its effect on evil is the sardines fishy smell.
Fortunately, if you go to TAISHO BEKKAN this summer the sardines will be so fresh- they be fishy at all. If you don`t believe me- go there….. to have YOUR eyes opened!