The unchanging spirit of the dried fish dish

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Aji horse mackerel drying in the sun

By Kenichi Osuga / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterNUMAZU, Shizuoka — A freshly grilled dried fish boasts the delectable contrast of a dark brown exterior against the white of the meat. The steam rising from the fish reminds me of the fragrance of the sea breeze. Usually, I eat dried fish without paying much attention to it, but for this story, I carefully observed it. An employee at the restaurant, who had no idea of what I was doing, dubiously watched me admire the fish. It was an attempt, I think, to encourage me to hurry up and eat. Finally, I did.

Dried fish in Numazu taste different from other dried fish — the mixture of the delicately measured salinity and slightly burned aroma spread in my mouth. There is also the great taste of the fish itself, creating a harmony between these flavors.

Goro Inogashira, the main character of the manga “Kodoku no Gurume” (Solitary gourmet), would probably have said, “The dried fish tasted correct,” or “The dried fish tasted like dried fish.”

Numazu Himono, or Numazu dried fish, is a registered brand name. The city of Numazu produced about 20,489 tons of dried aji horse mackerel, or 37 percent of total national production, according to 2004 national statistics. The city also produced about 5,345 tons of sababushi smoked mackerel, which accounted for 42 percent of the national output. Although more recent statistics are not available as 2004 was the last year they were compiled, officials from the city and local marine products industry both said, “Even now, it is the best.”

“Dried fish from Numazu is the best in Japan as it is made using underground water from Mt. Fuji, the wind off the beach and sunlight,” said the head of an association for Numazu Himono, Yoshio Goto, 69.

Local weather conditions, which suit the production of dried fish, and the underground water, which contains large amounts of minerals, have enhanced the taste of the fish.

Many of the manufacturers slice the fish without using machines, which preserve the fabulous texture of the fish.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Fish factory employees cut aji by hand.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Dried fish are popular at a shopping facility near Numazu Port.

Numazu Port, which is surrounded by about 60 restaurants and retail shops, attracts a lot of tourists searching for the superb dried fish. About 1.56 million tourists visited in fiscal 2015, according to the Numazu city office. Many of the restaurants offer dried fish meals as their signature dishes. During the weekend, the area is filled with people who buy dried fish to take back home. The taste of dried fish also differs from shop to shop, making comparing the tastes part of a fun outing.

“Each shop keeps a secret recipe that includes how they cut the fish, the salinity, and the drying time,” said Kenji Nagasawa, 55, president of the manufacturer Nagasho Suisan. “The brine recipe, which defines the taste of the dried fish, is especially well guarded. Numazu manufacturers aren’t concerned about where the fish is caught, but we pay special attention to how we prepare the fish.”

Dried fish in Numazu saw high demand shortly after World War II, Goto said. At that time, there was a freight line connecting the port and the Tokaido Line, which made Numazu a major production center of dried fish for consumers in the Tokyo metropolitan area. In the 1970s, there were about 400 dried fish manufacturers. There are now fewer than 100 partly due to a decline in fish consumption.

Previously, aji had been a favored fish for the dried fish dish. However, in the past 20 years, other fish, such as kinmedai splendid alfonsino, ebodai Japanese butterfish and hokke Okhotsk atka mackerel, have become popular for dried fish.

“Even for dried fish, there are trends,” Nagasawa said. “However, the tradition, skill and spirit of preparing it will never change.”

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