Shirasu to konnyaku ponzu-ae

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.)

 

shirasu
Shirasu to konnyaku ponzu-ae – a celebration of tiny fish.

 

 

 

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Furofuki Daikon

Most commonly encountered grated as a garnish for oroshi dishes or as a crunchy pickle (the Nihombashi district of Tokyo even holds an annual daikon festival every October where hundreds of vendors sell their own variation on the pickle), daikon- Japan’s unwieldy, oversized white radish- is surprisingly even tastier when used in a warm cooked dish than when eaten raw.  The mellow sweetness of the root is encouraged into the limelight by gentle stewing while the spicy, almost watercress-like flavour is ushered into a supporting role- more of an intriguing, characterful nuance than its normal in-your-face approach.  A soft, juicy disc of daikon is a prize to be found bobbing around in a steaming vat of oden along with the assorted fish cakes, or cut into tiny cubes sunk into a bowl of miso soup, but by far the best way to enjoy cooked daikon is as a tender, gently simmered ‘steak’.  Our preferred partner to a succulent piece of daikon is a classic nerimiso sauce; intensely flavoured on its own, too savoury and far too salty, but after you bite into the tender radish, it releases its juices and they combine together with the yuzu perfumed paste to create the perfect seasoning.

After a bout of illness or a long trip abroad, simmered daikon is often the first comfort food that Japanese people crave; the enveloping, warming aroma eliciting carefree childhood memories and the soothing, nostalgic taste of mothers’ homely cooking.   Whilst its close relative the turnip has fallen out of favour in British cuisine in recent years for being too old-fashioned in flavour, stewed daikon has never lost its popularity in Japan, remaining a winter favourite and an example of traditional, country style cooking at its finest.

 

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Furofuki Daikon- Simmered radish with white miso sauce.

 

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