Along the picturesque and rocky coast of Southern Japan, previously the haunt of pirate clans and mythical creatures, fish- as you would expect- make up a substantial part of the locals’ diet. From the large, headliners of the fish world like tuna, black cod, bream and salmon, to the smaller mackerel, sardines and anchovies, they are all consumed with delight- one species peculiar to Japanese waters however is perhaps the smallest fish you’re ever likely to eat- the miniscule Shirasu.
Shirasu are juvenile katakuchi iwashi, a type of sardine. Tiny, pearlescent fish barely a centimetre in length with a blushing pink spot on their belly, boiled in salted water and then semi-dried to preserve them and enhance their flavour. Some of the most memorable meals we’ve had the fortune of eating on Shikoku or Kyūshū have been served with a mound of these delicate slivers gracing the tray, or perched atop a bowl of food, looking to the uninitiated like a tiny portion of rice until you get close enough to see their minute, perfectly preserved features. The shirasu bring a clean, white fish flavour and a hit of saltiness to any dish that you add them to- stirred into sunomono salads, packed into an onigiri, mixed with grated daikon and served over rice or eaten as a bar snack with a cold beer. Our favourite way to eat them though is in a dish we were served at a motsu restaurant, an appetiser that the chef placed in front of us while we were deciding what to order with the assistance of some particularly boisterous local diners. A small handmade bowl containing only two or three mouthfuls of food, a few lengths of finely sliced konnyaku, doused in a mixture of bonito-infused soy sauce and kabosu juice, a tangle of the little fish and a thoughtfully placed garnish. The smoky, sour and salty dressing working wonders on the slippery, springy konnyaku which acted as the perfect textural contrast to the miniature fish. Such a simple presentation of a handful of ingredients spelled out the essence of Japanese cuisine to me way more than any other dish has before or after and has remained as one of my favourite dishes ever since.
(Shirasu are available frozen in many of the larger oriental supermarkets, a close second if you can’t get them however are chirimen jako, which are the same fish but fully dehydrated. Soak them in some cold water for an hour and you’ll end up with a similar, though slightly less clean-tasting treat.)
Katsuo shoyu ingredients.
- 250ml soy sauce
- 10cm by 1cm length of katsuobushi (you can buy pieces specifically packaged for this purpose, cut to fit through the neck of most soy sauce bottles)
- Pour the soy sauce into a jar and add the piece of katsuobushi. Allow the sauce to steep and take on the smoky fishy flavour for at least a week before using it- the longer you leave it the more intense it will become. If you’re using a 250ml bottle of soy sauce for this recipe, simply tip out a small quantity from the bottle to allow space for the katsuobushi and continue as normal, using the soy bottle instead of a jar.
- If you don’t have time to make the sauce following the above method, instead infuse a handful of katsuobushi flakes in some soy sauce for an hour or two and then strain out for a quicker but less rounded result.
Shirasu to konnyaku ponzu-ae ingredients.
- 200g block white konnyaku
- 40g shirasu
- 60ml katsuo shoyu, from above recipe
- 80ml kabosu juice (or you can substitute yuzu, lime or bitter orange juice)
- pinch of mustard microgreens to garnish
- Carefully cut the block of konnyaku widthwise into thin slices and cut each slice into strips, giving you short noodle-like pieces. Rinse them under cold water for a few seconds to refresh the konnyaku and remove any odour, then drain thoroughly and divide between four serving bowls.
- Mix together the katsuo shoyu and kabosu juice to create a ponzu-ae dressing and spoon this over the konnyaku. Top each bowl with a mound of the shirasu and a couple of the miniature mustard leaves to garnish before serving.
Serves 4 people as an appetiser or side dish.