Here’s another classic Japanese recipe from my mother. I have to admit that I’m not very good with fish, with the exception of simple grilling or panfrying and so on, but my mom has all kinds of great fish recipes up her sleeve.
Last week we spent a rather chilly week in Brittany (Bretagne), where the highlight was definitely the abundance of cheap, really fresh fish available to us. One fish in particular that was really good and inexpensive was maquereau, or Atlantic mackerel, which we know as saba （鯖 さば）in Japanese. In Japan, mackerel is usually treated one of three ways: grilled over an open flame (amiyaki), treated with salt and vinegar (shimesaba) and turned into an old fashioned kind of sushi (sabazushi), or gently braised in a sauce with the classic Japanese combination of salty-sweet flavors. This mackerel is cooked in a ginger scented miso sauce, then allowed to cool down in the liquid overnight, which allows the flavors to penetrate the firm flesh of the fish. You barely notice the oiliness at all, and the sauce is plate-lickingly tasty. I like to eat it chilled, right out of the refrigerator, with plain rice and a simple salad on the side. It makes for a refreshing yet rich dish for a summer meal.
Serves 3 to 4, depending on the size of the fish
Have the fishmonger take the head off and gut the fish if you can. If not, you will have to do this yourself. Either way, once you get the fish home, wash it carefully and cut it crosswise into 3 to 4 steaks. With the point of your knife, make a slash about 1/4 inch / 1/2 cm or so deep in the skin of the side that will be facing up when you put the pieces into the pot. (This helps the cooking liquid penetrate the fish better.)
Peel and finely julienne (cut into small matchsticks) the piece of fresh ginger.
In a pan that’s large enough to hold the fish pieces in one layer, put in the mirin and sake. Turn on the heat and let this cook until the liquid has bubbled and is almost gone. (This gets rid of most of the alcohol content in the mirin and sake.)
Add about 1/2 cup of water, sugar and the soy sauce, and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the julienned ginger and miso, and stir until the miso has dissolved.
Add the fish pieces with the slashed side up, and then add more water until the liquid comes about halfway up the side of the fish. Bring up to a simmer, then lower the heat to about medium-low.
Make a ‘lid’ with some crumbled up aluminum foil with a few holes poked in it, and put this ‘lid’ (an otoshibuta or dropped lid, see here for an explanation of otoshibuta ) on top of the fish.
Simmer on medium-low heat (the liquid should be bubbling gently, but not boiling) for about 15 minutes. For best results, lift off the foil lid a couple of times, tilt the pan to gather the juices in a corner, scoop the juices up and baste the fish with them.
After 15 minutes, turn off the heat and replace the foil lid. Let cool to room temperature, then transfer to a bowl, cover and store in the refrigerator overnight. This allows the fish to firm up and also absorb the flavors of the braising liquid.
Serve chilled or heated up a bit, with a little of the liquid spooned over, including some of the ginger bits. A little green for garnish is nice too - I used a fresh shiso leaf, but some parsley or even lettuce will do too.
Note: While this has the strong flavors that go so well with rice, I don’t recommend this for bentos (which is why it’s on Just Hungry, not Just Bento!) since you do have to keep it chilled until right before eating. If you want it warm, just heat it up a bit in a pan with the liquids.
Saba is an ‘oily’ fish, like herring, bluefish, smelt and sardines (or pilchards). It’s packed with good-for-you omega-3 fatty acids  and is considered to be sustainable and low in mercury levels too .
Mackerel can be a bit tricky though. It has to be very fresh, and it goes downhill pretty fast. The best way to gauge if a mackerel, or any fish really, is fresh is to look at their faces. Their eyes should be clear and bright, not dried out or bloodshoot like someone after a drunken night out. They should look like this:
The fish counter is also a good gauge of how fresh the fish is. It shouldn’t smell fishy or rank; it should just smell like the sea. Here’s the counter at the poissoniere we bought the mackerel we used from, in the small villege of Damgan on the southern coast of Brittany.
My mother declared their fish to be as of good a quality as any she’s seen in Japan. Coming from her, this is high praise, since she’s über-picky about her fish!