Transporting fresh fish from the coast of Japan to its major inland cities was almost impossible before the advent of refrigerated trains; the days required to travel by horse resulted in inedible, spoiled goods unfit for the population of the Kansai region. The only reliable means of getting fish to the then-capital city of Kyoto was to preserve it in some way- fermenting the fish in rice was popular, which extended its shelf-life to six months or more but altered the flavour dramatically. In this early form of sushi, the rice was discarded and only the soured, preserved fish was eaten; it would take another three or four hundred years until the mid 1600s for a version with edible rice to evolve. As the techniques for making sushi developed, the preservation of the fish improved but palates accustomed to the old style dishes yearned for the sour tang and started adding vinegar to the rice, creating the seasoned sushi rice we know and love today.
Sabazushi, still one of Japan’s most popular forms of sushi, lies comfortably between the fish preserving necessities of old that led to the development of sushi and the modern, perfectly crafted slices of fish atop vinegared rice that spring to mind as this most ubiquitous Japanese delicacy. Glistening, iridescent, tiger-striped fillets of mackerel are salted and lightly cured before being wrapped over a pillow of seasoned sticky rice and sliced into perfect, jewel topped pieces. Traditionally in Osaka, you would press this in an oshizushihako box mould to create a rectangular block, but we prefer to make it Kyoto-style and shape it by hand so you can appreciate the naturally domed top that the fish forms. Whether you press it or not this makes a plate of beautiful, two-bite sized morsels; delicate, refreshingly tangy and with just enough of the rich, creamy fattiness that we love mackerel for.
- 2 mackerel fillets, each weighing 135-150g
- 35g fine sea salt
- 250ml rice vinegar
- half a lemon
- 200g uncooked Japanese rice
- 20ml rice vinegar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- soy sauce to serve
- gari (pickled ginger) to serve
- Place the mackerel fillets on a plate and generously sprinkle both sides with the sea salt; shake off any loose salt then transfer the fish to a wire rack with a plate underneath to catch any drips. Allow the mackerel to cure like this for an hour and a half, at room temperature .
- Rinse the mackerel under cold running water, then pat dry with some kitchen roll. Cut the lemon half into slices, then put it with the fish into a resealable food bag along with the 250ml rice vinegar. Squeeze the excess air out of the bag as you seal it, then place it in the refrigerator for two hours so the fish can lightly pickle.
- While the fish is in the fridge, you can cook the sushi rice. Place the rice in a bowl in your sink and add plenty of water, ten centimetres above the level of the rice. Using both of your hands, swirl the rice around in the water, then rub the grains between your palms in a circular motion. Repeat this step a few times until you think you’ve rubbed all of the grains and the water has turned very cloudy with starch. Drain off the water, then add fresh water and repeat this whole process two more times. When you’re happy that your rice is clean and free of loose starch, drain well and transfer to a saucepan along with 295ml cold water and the 1/2 teaspoon of salt.
- Cover the pan with a lid and over a high heat bring it to the boil- this should take three to five minutes. When the water has come to the boil, turn the heat as low as it will go and leave to cook for another ten minutes. When the ten minutes is up, turn the heat off but don’t remove the lid from your pan. Let the rice steam undisturbed for a further ten to fifteen minutes before removing the lid. Dissolve the sugar in the rice vinegar then fold it into the hot rice. When thoroughly mixed, spread the rice out as thinly as you can and allow it to completely cool down.
- After the fish has pickled for two hours, remove it from the fridge and pour away the liquid, then dry it with kitchen roll again. At this stage you should notice a difference in the mackerel- the flesh will be firmer and it will have started to turn opaque towards the edges. Carefully remove any bones or cartilage from the fish with a pair of tweezers before laying it skin side upwards on a chopping board. Starting at the head end of each fillet, gently peel away and discard the tough, transparent outer layer of skin from the mackerel, leaving behind the delicate, patterned, silvery inner skin.
- Lay a piece of cling film on your work surface, then place a fillet of mackerel skin side down in the centre of it. Evenly spread a line of rice two to three centimetres thick along the length of the fish, then carefully wrap the film around the fish and rice to form a long sausage shape. Firmly press the block of sabazushi to even out the shape and define the sides, then repeat the process with the remaining fillet. Let the rolls rest at room temperature for about an hour before unwrapping them and carefully slicing each into eight pieces. Serve the sushi with pickled ginger on the side and a small dish of soy sauce for dipping.
Makes 16 pieces.
Serves 4 people as a sushi course or as part of a larger sushi meal.