Itadakimasu! 鮎の塩焼き Ayu no Shioyaki
One aspect of Japanese cuisine which I really like is how flavours are kept clean and pristine, putting forth the original taste as carried by the ingredients in an utmost unblemished and unbashful manner. For many of us, it is the “real flavours” behind the ingredients which we are really after be it the acridity of yuzu, the numbing effects of sansho, the astringency of wasabi or in this case of 鮎の塩焼き Ayu no Shioyaki, the delightful sweetness from this salmonoid freshwater fish.
鮎 “Ayu” is a freshwater species endemic to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, parts of China and the Korean peninsula. It comes from the monotypic genus Plecoglossus, where it is the only species described to date and it even extends up in their classification tree to be the only member of the Plecoglossidae family. One of their “cousins” is smelt which are better known as shishamo 柳葉魚, another favorite amongst the Japanese, especially being served up to accompany sake or Japanese beer in an izakaya.
Ayu is an “annual” fish with typical lifespan in the wild of up to 1 year. They are amphidromous, following strict migratory paths thus making them somewhat predictable and could be found in certain designated rivers during certain times of the year. Fishing for ayu is a popular activity in the summer months where impromptu barbequing stations are set up just by the rocky riverbeds for the freshly caught fish to be grilled almost instantly with just a smattering of salt is all that is required to flavour the fish before the are skewered and placed around the hot ash and cinder. Their bodies are deliberately curved and contorted as their scaleless skins are being pierced through, to mimic them swimming against the rapid water currents as they were still just alive moments ago.
I didn’t set up a charcoal gilling station for the 4 fish I’d gotten. Instead, I’d used the grill mode of my oven instead, set to the highest temperature possible and grilled until their eyes just begin to turn white. The high heat helps to cook and crisp up the exterior quickly while the succulent flesh within remains moist and juicy.
Admittedly, I was overzealous with the salt used. Thankfully, the salt crystals harden with the skin which allows them to be tapped off with fair ease, or peeled away with the skin subsequently during tasting. The meat exudes a really gentle sweetness, bearing true testament to their name in Taiwan, 香魚.
Two of the fish were enjoyed that evening with some simple Japanese dishes like Agedashi tofu, Nikujaga and Dashimaki Tamago which I’d prepared for dinner, The remaining two fish were flaked and added with some leftover rice, houjicha, dashi stock, toasted sesame seeds, shredded toasted nori to make お茶漬けochazuke! Oiishii desu!