Stewed sardines with pickled plums イワシの梅煮

japanese cake

Did I happen to mention that fresh sardines at our new grocery store often look like they just came out of a bar fight the night before? Well, today, they looked slightly better and I decided to go with the sardines. I got six and made two dishes. This is one of them.

Sardines and herrings are related but slightly different. For one, herrings can be rather large but sardines are usually smaller. The sardines we got today were larger than we see canned. So I decided to treat the sardines as though they were small herrings.

The first dish I made from four sardines is called “Umeni” 梅煮 meaning “stewed with plum”. Since herrings/sardines are rather oily blue fish with a strong taste,  adding some sourness helps to cut the oiliness. This is very similar to the simmered Pacific saury or “sanma” which I posted before.

Cleaning sardines: The fishmonger at the grocery store was a bit surprised when I said I would do the cleaning myself–“so just give me the sardines as is.” Scaling was rather easy since they have large, easy-to-remove scales. For this dish, I wanted to keep the shape of the fish. So I did not want to open the underbelly and gut it. Instead, I cut off the head first and from that opening, extracted the guts using a narrow blade boning knife (being careful not break the belly) and my fingers.

Pre-cooking: Some kind of preparation is in order to reduce oily fishiness of the sardines before the actual stewing. Some would just pour hot water over the fish and then washed in cold water. But I went further. I boiled them in vinegared water first. In about 1 cup of water I added rice vinegar (2 tbs) and placed the cleaned sardines. When it came to boil, I turned the flame down and simmered it for 5-7 minutes without a lid on. I poured the simmering liquid out and gently washed them in cold running water. The skin is very fragile as you can see image below (#1).

Simmering liquid: There are many variations but essentially soy sauce with some sweetness either from mirin, sugar or both. I used water (300ml), soy sauce (3 tbs), mirin (2 tbs) and sugar (1 tsp). I added two “umeboshi” pickled plums and several thin slivers of ginger root (#2) in a Pyrex pan in which 4 sardines snuggly fit (#3). I placed my favorite silicon “otoshi-buta” on the top. Since this is made of silicon, it conformed to even a square pan (#4). I put a reguar lid slightly askew over it on a medium flame. As soon as it started boiling, I turned it down to a gentle simmer and cooked it for about 40 minutes.

After 40 minutes, I removed the both lids and turned up the heat and let it boil gently so that the simmering liquid reduced a bit. I removed it from the heat and let it cool down with a lid back on for several hours to room temperature before serving.

As you can see in the first picture, I garnished it with thinly julienned ginger (“Harishouga” 針ショウガ) and perilla. If you do not like a strong ginger taste, you could soak the julienned ginger in cold water for 5 minutes or so and ring out the moisture before using. I also removed the meat of the Umeboshi and draped it over the fish.

This is another homey dish, probably only served at home, in a “taishu shokudou大衆食堂 (eatery for the public) or izakaya. This is a perfect side dish with rice or its liquified form, i.e. sake. We had this with the latter. To enjoy this dish, you need to be a chopstick jedi since the fish has  lot of small bones (remember the “herring-bone pattern”). My wife was not expecting so many bones. She described her first bite as like chomping into a toothbrush and having all the bristles come off the handle into her mouth. But once she realized the situation, she was an expert at removing all available meat from the bones. I admit this is a very labor intensive dish (both preparing and eating) but it is worth it especially if you do not have a neighborhood Izakaya or “taishu shokudou” to visit.

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