Sea bream or Tai is without a doubt Japan’s most beloved fish. Being a symbol of good fortune it is traditionally served during celebrations, which is alluded to in the term ‘medetai’, a phrase used to congratulate people on auspicious events. During the Edo period tai was so prized that it was reserved almost exclusively for the tables of the wealthy and a market solely trading in this king of fish was even set up in Osaka. Lucky bream shaped sweets are a popular favour handed out at Japanese weddings, and the hot, sweet, bean-filled pancakes called taiyaki can be bought at stalls and cafés all over the country. Ebisu- one of the traditional seven gods of fortune, is portrayed holding a fishing rod in one hand and carrying a huge red tai in the other. It is the symbol of wealth, prosperity and high quality; it even spoils at a slower rate to other fish thanks to the high levels of inosinic acid present in its flesh, making it an excellent choice for sashimi.
One of the best ways to enjoy this luckiest of fish is in this ‘surf & turf’ inspired takikomi gohan; the sweet, succulent pearly flesh of the tai is paired with meaty, earthy mushrooms and the spicy freshness only ginger can provide, to create a deliciously savoury rice dish that borders on the decadent. We’ve used a selection of our favourite mushrooms in this recipe, some frilly, some dense and some tender, but feel free to use whatever is available locally to you. If you’re fortunate enough to have some of the highly sought after, distinctly flavoured, matsutake mushrooms, they would make a phenomenal addition to your tai-meshi, combining both the country’s favourite fish and fungus into one memorable dish that spells out what the Japanese value most in food.
- 2 small whole sea bream, cleaned (approximately 700g in total)
- 400g Japanese rice
- 100g assorted mushrooms (we’ve used maitake, eryngii, shiitake and hiratake mushrooms)
- 25g ginger
- 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 10cm by 10cm piece kombu
- handful katsuobushi flakes
- 15ml soy sauce
- 30ml sake
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
- 2 spring onions
- Wipe any grit off the kombu with a damp cloth, then add it to a saucepan along with 550ml cold water. Place the pan over a medium heat and slowly bring the water to the boil. Once the water is boiling, turn off the heat, remove the kombu and add the handful of katsuobushi flakes. Leave the flakes to infuse for two to three minutes, then strain the dashi through a muslin cloth into a measuring jug. Add the soy sauce, sake and half a teaspoon of the salt to the dashi, then top it up to 580ml with extra cold water if needed. Stir to dissolve the salt, then leave the dashi to cool to room temperature.
- Liberally season the sea bream on all sides, including the cavity, with the remaining salt then set to one side on a plate while you prepare the vegetables. Carefully brush away any dirt that might be on the mushrooms, cut off any ragged parts from the base of the stalks and in the case of the shiitake, remove the tough stalk in its entirety. Tear the maitake and hiratake mushrooms into bite sized pieces, then cut the shiitake and eryngii into slices of roughly the same size (if you’re using other mushrooms then prepare them as appropriate; whole brown shimeji are also delicious in this dish, as are enoki mushrooms cut into little bunches). Peel the ginger, slice thinly along the grain and then julienne as finely as possible.
- Wash the rice well in plenty of cold water then drain thoroughly and transfer it to a large earthenware donabe or a saucepan with a tight fitting lid. Sprinkle the shredded ginger over the rice and then layer on the prepared mushrooms, pour over the cooled dashi broth and then place the two sea bream snugly on top, tucking their tails down the side of the rice if necessary. Put the lid on your pan and place it on a high heat until the liquid inside has come to a boil- this should take three to five minutes. When you can hear the dashi bubbling fiercely inside the pan, turn the heat as low as it will go and leave undisturbed for ten minutes. Take the pan off the heat and allow the rice to steam and rest for another ten minutes before taking the lid off.
- Carefully transfer the bream to a plate, remove the skin and separate the large flakes of fish from its skeleton then discard the head and bones- one of the tastiest morsels on the fish is the cheek, so don’t forget to include those. Fold the pieces of fish back into the rice along with the shredded ginger and the mushrooms, then spoon out into your serving dishes. Top each bowl of tai-meshi with a scattering of toasted sesame seeds and a sprinkle of finely chopped spring onions immediately before serving.
Serves 4 people.