Saturday, December 14, 2013

Sanma Comes but Once a Year

Sanma, salted and broiled
“You are just like Japanese!”  The woman sitting next to me at the bar nearly jumped out of her seat with surprise. For the last hour she had been conspicuously studying my moves.  Sitting alone at the bar of this small izakaya off The Strip in Las Vegas I was a bit of an anomaly.  Amongst the tightly packed tables, I was one of only a handful of non-Japanese faces.

Just then I had removed the spine from a long, thin fish in one movement.  A moment earlier, perhaps sensing this wasn’t my first time eating sanma, my curious neighbor had leaned over and mimed my next steps for eating this strange fish.  She indicated I was to grasp the tail between my thumb and fingers and pulling back in a clean motion bringing the tail toward the head of the fish.

I followed her advice and like that, two salt crusted, slightly charred fillets were separated from the head and the tail both attached by the spine. I had performed the motion, she said, “just like Japanese.”

This was my first experience with sanma, a Japanese fish that makes its short appearance each fall.  I wish I could say I had known what I was ordering but, like most of my dining experiences at this restaurant, the discovery was a happy accident.  I had learned eating at Abriya Raku to defer to the specials board.  Even if the writing on their movable blackboard menu was illegible and the waiter’s description incomprehensible, if I just pointed to a few items these would eventually show up, and I was never disappointed.

Bones removed with the guidance of my new Japanese friend, I found sanma has the sort of rich, firm flesh that I find delicious in other small oily fish.  Mackerel, sardines, and fresh anchovies are all similar in this way.

It would be a while before I saw sanma again.  This fall it made a brief appearance at the Lobster Place, the fish wholesaler with a retail outlet in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York.  Intrigued, I figured it couldn’t be too difficult to prepare at home.  A bit of research revealed recipes that did not differ much from what I often do to sardines.  Guts removed by the fishmonger (apparently some Japanese prefer cooking it with the organs still inside), I made long slashes in the skin and salted the flesh for a quick fifteen-minute cure.  Under the broiler the thin fish needed no more than 4 minutes per side for the flesh to be nicely charred. 

Salt curing the sanma before cooking
A squeeze of lemon and quick spine-removing gesture later and we were sitting down to a light supper of fish that you normally don’t find outside of Japanese restaurants.

The next week at the market we were back hoping for a repeat sanma dinner.  Sadly, in place of the whole fish were thin, boneless fillets.  Without the slender body and delicate spine the fish lost a bit of its magic.  That day we passed and opted instead for the humble whole sardine.  For me, a fish that comes but once a year deserves to be treated with the utmost respect and little does more to honor a fish than cooking it whole, just like Japanese. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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