Sanma no Shioyaki is a classic Japanese autumn dish. Fresh and delicious pacific saury sprinkled with salt and grilled, it's so simple yet so tasty. Typically enjoyed with grated daikon and a squeeze of sudachi, this dish is perfect served with rice and miso soup!
What is sanma (Pacific saury)?
Sanma (秋刀魚) is a type of long, thin fish. In Japanese, it's name means "Autumn Sword Fish". Autumn is the season it's caught and sword comes from it's appearance, being long and silver with a pointed nose.
In English, it's known as Pacific saury or Mackerel Pike and is widely found in the North Pacific Ocean.
In Japan, sanma is served as one of the most popular autumn dishes, but it can also be found canned all year around.
Fishmongers and supermarkets in Japan are full of sanma around September and October!
Taste/flavour of Sanma
Sanma is fatty and has a rich and unique flavour. Some compare the fattiness of sanma to mackerel, but the flavour is lighter and smoother than mackerel.
It is typically sold with the guts still intact, this is because the bitter taste of the intestines are surprisingly appreciated by a lot of adults (kids hate it of course).
It's down to your preference whether you eat the guts or not, but apparently they're very nutritious!
Where in Japan sanma is caught?
These days, most of the pacific saury are caught off the coast of Hokkaido and Sanriku (Tohoku). However, it is said that the first saury fishery in the early Edo period was in the Kumano Sea in Kishu area (now called Wakayama Prefecture).
This change is due to environmental factors, as the cold currents were moving south at that time.
History of Pacific Saury in Japan
During the early to mid-Edo period, pacific saury was actually not used as food, but the fat part was used as oil for lanterns!
Back then, light coloured fish with little fat were preferred, and pacific saury was the opposite of that preference.
Around the late 18th century, a fishmonger put up a sign saying, "Cheap and long is Sanma" and the fish became popular among the common people, but it is said that samurai did not eat it because the shape of fish reminded them of swords (katana).
How it's cooked in Japan
There are many ways to cook and eat pacific saury;
- Raw (only when extremely fresh)
- Salted and grilled
- Grilled with a sauce
- Deep fried
- Pickled in vinegar
With Japan being an island nation, we have an abundance of fresh fish. In order to enjoy the taste of freshness, preparation is kept simple. The most popular ways to enjoy fish in Japan is either raw (sushi and sashimi) or simply salted and cooked on a grill, a method we call "Shioyaki" (塩焼き).
Shio (塩) means salt and yaki (焼き) means to grill. This simple technique enhances the fresh taste of the fish, rather than hiding it with herbs or spices. The most popular fish used for shioyaki are mackerel and salmon.
Fresh sanma is easy to find in Japanese supermarkets in autumn and "shioyaki style" is the most popular way to cook it, at least among everyday households.
Grilling on the BBQ is ideal because the skin picks up extra flavour from the coals, but you can also cook them in under the grill at home too!
What to eat with sanma
The most common way to eat sanma is with rice, miso soup and pickles.
The sanma itself is often served with grated daikon, soy sauce and a citrus fruit squeezed over it. Common fruits to use are sudachi, kabosu and yuzu, but these are all native to Japan. If you can't find them, lemon or lime would also work.
While the dark part in the sanma is the intestines and they can be very bitter, but many people say that eating it together with condiments creates a delicious balance. You should definitely try it!
How to eat sanma shioyaki
Sanma shioyaki is usually served complete with head, tail, guts and bones. It might be a little intimidating if you haven't eaten Japanese style fish before. This is how we eat sanma shioyaki step by step.
- First, pour a small amount of soy sauce over grated daikon radish (daikon oroshi).
- Squeeze your choice of citrus over the sanma so that the juice is on the skin.
- Break the skin with your chopsticks, the fish is often scored to make this easier.
- Place some grated daikon on the part you want to eat and pick the daikon and flesh up together.
- Once you've eaten the top of the fish, you should be able to pull out the remaining bones in one piece and set it to the side of the plate.
- Eating the guts is optional.
Note: It's best to eat shioyaki fish with Japanese chopsticks which are pointy and designed especially for picking bones out of fish. (Chinese chopsticks tend to be longer, thicker and rounder while Korean chopsticks are made of metal and the shape is quite flat. Interesting, right?)
Tips and tricks to make amazing sanma no shioyaki
In the end, sanma shioyaki is just salted and grilled, but there is much more to this dish. A few little tricks can make a big difference in this!
So here are my tips and tricks to cook pacific saury!
How to pick good quality pacific saury
There are a few ways to ensure you've chosen a good and tasty pacific saury at the fishmonger.
- Eyes are clear black and not bloodshot
- Tip of mouth and tip of tail are yellowish
- Shiny silvery belly
- The body is thicker
- The back is beautifully black/dark in colour
- The base of the neck is bulging
- Generally bigger than the others
Smaller ones are cheaper, but the bigger the body is, the more fat they have, which is extra tasty when grilled!
Wash the pacific saury beforehand
It's quite important to wash the fish properly before cooking. The recommended steps go:
- Wash in fresh water
- Dry with kitchen paper
- Lightly salt it and rest for 5 mins (dehydration)
- Wash with water and sake
- Dry again
A little bit strenuous, but it's worth it!
Rubbing fine salt in
Sprinkle a good 2 pinches of fine salt (more precisely ⅓ tsp) on each side and rub it in. It's a good idea to sprinkle the salt from above so that it evenly coats the fish. Then leave it for about 5-10 mins before cooking.
Brushing oil on the grill
To avoid the skin of the saury getting stuck to grill, brushing a tiny bit of oil on the grill is recommended.
The oil should be a neutral flavour like vegetable oil.
Preheat the grill
Preheating is important when it comes to grilling fish in general.
Before placing saury on the heat, preheat the grill for 3 to 5 minutes to make sure it's hot enough to start cooking evenly.
By cooking the surface of the saury quickly, you can lock in its flavor without it becoming dry.
Place them directly beneath the heat source
There are all kinds of different grills, but make sure to check where the main heat source is and place the fish directly beneath the heat source. This will help it to cook evenly.
Cooking with medium-high, 5-7 mins on each side!
More Japanese Fish Recipes on Sudachi Recipes
If you love Japanese style fish, check out some of my other recipes!
- Shiozake (Salted Grilled Salmon)
- Saba no Misoni (Simmered Mackerel with Miso)
- Sakana No Nitsuke (Japanese Simmered Fish)
- Miso Glazed Salmon
- Quick and Easy Teriyaki Cod