Original URL: https://kiki-voice.jp/journal/323
※This essay contains a bonus image that can be seen at the original URL above, past the paywall (KIKI-VOICE subscription required).
※This essay was also published in the book compilation of Saito Soma no Kenkou de Bunkateki na Saitei Gendo no Seikatsu.
Note: Sanma is the Japanese name for the fish Pacific saury or mackerel pike. Both of the English names are clunky to use repetitively, so I am leaving it in Japanese. (There will be a glossary at the end for the rest of the food vocabulary.)
The sanma season has come once again. No matter what anyone says, sanma has to be shioyaki—grilled with salt. No grated daikon, no soy sauce. If you have to garnish it with something, at least keep it to kabosu. Lay the salt on a bit strong, grill it just a bit too long, and eat. Kabayaki, tinned, sashimi, sushi, al ajillo—I’ve tried all sorts of preparation styles, but none of them beat shioyaki.
I’m from Yamanashi, which doesn’t border the sea, but since I begged for sanma so much, we always had it on the dinner table once a week. I wasn’t very good at using chopsticks as a kid, so my father would flake the flesh nicely for me and my sisters. Later on, I developed some independence and insisted on doing it myself. Naturally I couldn’t do it well, and the poor sanma fell into pieces as I ate. I wasn’t discouraged, though, and eventually I became decent at it.
Lately, I often see people cut the fish at the head and use chopsticks to slide the flesh off all at once, removing the backbone in one go. But when eating fish—especially sanma—I don’t want to do that. I think back to that time when I battled with the sanma day after day, wanting to be able to eat it cleanly without using any secret tricks.
Sanma has connected me to people.
My senpai showed me a nearby izakaya. It has a disorganized atmosphere but the food is incredible, so I continued to go there occasionally. There weren’t really any other customers around my age, and I doubt the employees paid any attention to me sipping away at my drink. Late one summer, I saw that shioyaki-style sanma had been added to the menu, and I ordered it immediately. As I was waiting, a couple sat down next to me. They seemed slightly older than me, and they ordered sanma too—but apparently, I’d ordered the last one for the day. Timing is a cruel mistress, and as soon as the waitress told them the bad news, my sanma arrived. “Yes, that’s the last one,” she said. I wanted to run away.
I had an apologetic look on my face as I stared at the sanma.
Yep. It has a nice face.
I took a gulp of beer, held it in my mouth for a bit as I wet my lips, then took a bite of the sanma.
Ahh, this is it.
The flesh had just the right amount of fat, the grilled surface of the skin matched exquisitely with the salt, and then there were the innards, which I couldn’t eat when I was a kid. It was all irresistible.
This calls for sake. I ordered Hakkaisan to add more splendour to the rotation.
Before I knew it, the sanma had cleanly vanished, leaving only the head, bones, and tail behind. My sake ran out at the same time, so I called the waitress. “Oh my, you eat so cleanly,” she said.
The couple heard her and looked at my plate. One of them said, “Ohh, bravo!” while the other said, “The sanma must be satisfied too.”
The waitress offered me a beer as thanks for the sanma, and I took her up on that. The couple ordered drinks at the same time, and we found ourselves making conversation as we drank.
I still go to that izakaya often, and the employees all remember me now. Occasionally I encounter that couple again, and we drink while talking about how great all of the food there is.
Ah, I must go. The sanma is calling for me. If any of you spot me at an izakaya, giving a sanma my undivided attention, please just smile and carry on.
- Sanma – Pacific saury / mackerel pike
- Daikon – white radish
- Kabosu – a type of citrus fruit used for its juice
- Shioyaki – grilled with salt
- Kabayaki – fish is split down its back, cut into smaller pieces, dipped in a sweet soy sauce-based sauce, then grilled
- Al ajillo – fried in chili garlic oil
- Izakaya – informal Japanese bar