Every time I buy mackerel from the fish counter at our local Korean grocery store, I feel like I’m getting away with something. A single Norwegian Atlantic Mackerel costs about three dollars, which turns into four filets, or just enough for a dinner for a family of two and a half people. I just can’t believe that a fish that’s so tasty could cost so little. It’s a miracle we don’t have mackerel two or three times a week.
According to my Japanese fish reference book — English subtitle: “A Useful Book of Fish” — there are three main kinds of mackerel in Japan. マサバ (Chub Mackerel, Scomber japonicus), ゴマサバ (Blue Mackerel, Scomber australasicus), and タイセイヨウサバ (Atlantic Mackerel, Scomber scombrus). We will pause here to note the infuriating tendency of English-language fish-namers to call completely unrelated fish by the same name, presumably for marketing purposes. The other fish that may be labeled “mackerel” in your local Korean grocery store are probably not. We’ve got “Spanish Mackerel” (actually さわら・Sawara, which is related but not a true mackerel); “Horse Mackerel” (あじ・Aji, which is delicious breaded and fried but not a mackerel); and even “Mackerel Pike” (サンマ・Sanma, properly called Pacific Saury, my very favorite fish, but NOT A MACKEREL). I’m surprised they don’t have lamb labeled as “fuzzy land mackerel.”
But now I’m ranting. So, back to our actual mackerels. The chubby mackerel is a relatively fancy fish, in-season in the fall when they’re fattest, and brand-name fish — yes, this is a thing — like this one from Oita in Kyushu can cost over $50 each. The blue mackerel is less fancy, less fatty, and less seasonal than the chubby mackerels, but still quite a nice fish with brand names that you can order on the internet. These are not what we’re eating. We’re eating the Atlantic Mackerel, which is cheap and delicious. It’s so cheap, in fact, that canned mackerel is a stereotypical budget food in Japan. (You can actually buy this very dish, mackerel simmered in miso, in a can, for about $1.50.) Regardless of how fancy your mackerel is, there are three main ways to prepare it. One, this thing. Two, salted and grilled (サバ塩焼き). And three, salt-cured and marinated in vinegar (しめ鯖), which I’m still a bit hesitant to try at home.
For this recipe we’re going to simmer the fish in a sauce made from a mix of red and white miso, sugar, sake, and water. Different recipes call for various other flavorings (soy sauce, mirin, dashi, etc.) and wildly varying amounts of sugar, but this simple, not-too-sweet version is my favorite.
RECIPE (for 2-3 servings, using one fish)
- 1 mackerel — In some stores you can buy filleted mackerel, which will save you some time. In that case, use four filets. Also don’t buy pre-salted mackerel, it will be much too salty.
- A knob of ginger, peeled — About a thumb length. A longish thumb. I apparently forgot to buy ginger last time I made this, and its absence was definitely noticeable.
- 2 generous tbsp red miso — I use pretty generous tablespoons. You can also use 4 tbsp of just red or white, or buy “awase miso,” which is already mixed.
- 2 generous tbsp white miso — As above.
- 2 generous tbsp sugar — My favorite recipe site, sirogohan.com, uses a shocking 3.5 tablespoons of sugar in this recipe, which is a bit much for me. Other recipes use less sugar (as little as 1 tbsp) plus mirin. I slowly cut back the sugar until I got to an amount that was still quite sweet, but a little less overwhelming. Then again, I don’t particularly like sweets, and I love miso flavor, so maybe this is just personal taste.
- 100ml sake — Don’t skip this.
- 250ml water — A lot of recipes call for more water than this (300-400ml), but I found that just means I have to let it simmer much longer, without doing much to improve the flavor.
- 1 bunch, green onions — Green onions go exceedingly well with this dish. I like to make something called shiraga negi (白髪ねぎ, white hair onions), though it’s difficult with the tiiiny little scallions they sell here.
- Prep the mackerel or, if you bought filets, skip this step. First, cut the mackerel in half longways, then cut the two halves in half, to get four filets. Lay the four filets in a deep bowl and pour hot, nearly-boiling water over them. Let it sit for a few seconds, then add cool water. Blanching the fish like this lets you easily brush off any dirty or fishy tasting stuff on the fish, so do that. Also, if you want to remove the bones, blanching makes that much easier too. Apparently if you cook it long enough, the bones become soft enough to eat, but two out of my three family members won’t even touch a bony fish, so in our house the bones always come out here.
- Peel the ginger and chop it into circles.
- Add water, sake, sugar, and ginger to a pot or deep pan and boil.
- When it’s boiling, turn the heat down to medium-low and add the mackerel, skin up.
- Let the mackerel cook for a minute, skimming off the white scummy stuff from the surface.
- Scoop out a few spoonfuls of hot water from the pot and add to the miso in a separate bowl. Stir it until it becomes kind of paste-like, then add the paste to the pot. You can also just chuck the miso into the pot, but I found this way makes it easier to mix everything together.
- Simmer! You ideally want to simmer with an otoshibuta (落し蓋), a wooden lid that sits directly on the boiling liquid/food to keep it from boiling too violently. Apparently you can substitute aluminum foil if you don’t have such a lid.
- Keep simmering, probably. Most recipes call for simmering for somewhere around 10-15 minutes. I don’t generally time it, I just watch until the sauce is as thick as I like it to be, then call it done. My personally preference is for a relatively thick, very miso-y sauce. I usually end up simmering it for considerably more than 10-15 minutes, though. Probably more like 30-45, with the otoshibuta coming off after the liquid gets thick enough.
- While the fish is simmering, prepare the green onions. I like to make long strands of the white parts of the onion, called “white hair onions” (白髪ねぎ, good recipe in English here), but you can also just chop up the more onion-tasting white parts into little circles too.
Remove the filets (carefully!) from the pot and put on a plate, then pour a couple (or more!) spoonfuls of sauce on top. This is obviously personal preference, though, as a quick Google Image search shows some with almost no sauce at all and some that are just drowning in sauce. Obviously, I am Team Drowning-in-Sauce. Either way, put some of those tasty onions on top. The fish should be very soft, so you can easily cut it with chopsticks.