Washoku apprentice / Relax your hand when filleting fish

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Yomiuri ShimbunThis series presents basic information and tips for preparing washoku dishes. In this installment, we discuss how to cut a fish into fillets.

“Do you think it’s enough to simply buy fish fillets?” said Yoko Munakata, an instructor with the Tokyo-based Better Home Association. “If you learn how to cut a fish into three slices yourself, you can expand your cooking repertoire.”

Munakata showed how to fillet a fish using aji horse mackerel. The fish is good for beginners as it is easy to handle and can be prepared without even using a deba-bocho, a Japanese broad-bladed cooking knife used mainly for cutting fish.

Before starting, place a paper towel on the cutting board. Filleting the fish on the paper towel can prevent the blood and organs from creating a mess. Clean-up is also easier because you only have to throw away the paper towel.

First, wash the fish and gently slice off the scales from the tail to head using the edge of the blade. Aji have hard scales called zeigo near the tail, which can be removed by sliding the knife from the base of the tail toward the head (photo 1).

Lift the pectoral fin and place the knife at the base. Press down firmly to cut off the head. Open the abdomen by cutting from the severed surface toward the anal fin. Remove the organs.

Cut the membrane deep in the abdomen with the top of the knife and remove the blood clots with your finger or disposable chopsticks (photo 2).

“If you leave any blood, the fish will smell,” Munakata said.

Wash the fish under running water and wipe it dry.

Place the fish on the cutting board with the abdomen facing you. From the severed surface, find the large backbone running through the middle of the body. Insert the knife just above the backbone and cut smoothly toward the tail (photo 3).

“If you force it, the flesh might collapse,” Munakata said. “The key is to relax your hand holding the knife when cutting.”

You now have two slices of fish.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Japanese-style aji saute

Next, take the piece with the backbone. Place it bone-side down with the back toward you. Again, insert the knife just above the bone and cut toward the tail.

The two fillets have small bones in the abdomen, as well as around where the backbone was. Use a bone remover or the knife to extract them (photo 4). You now have three pieces of fish (photo 5).

“After you learn the basics, you can apply this technique to mackerel, sea bream and other fish,” Munakata said.

Don’t throw away backbone

Not wasting anything is one of the characteristics of washoku Japanese cuisine, even the backbone of the fish. Munakata shared a great way to make backbone “cracker.”

Salt both sides of the backbone and set aside for about 10 minutes. Gently wipe away residual water with a paper towel and place the backbone between baking paper on a heat-proof plate. Microwave at 500 watts for 3 minutes, turn over and repeat for another 3 minutes until the bone becomes crispy.

The cracker can be enjoyed as it is or by sprinkling shichimi-togarashi seven-flavor pepper mix or curry powder over the top.

Recipe for Japanese-style aji saute

Ingredients (serves 2):

2 aji horse mackerel

1 tbsp flour

1 myoga ginger bud

6 green shiso leaves

1 tbsp cooking oil

Sauce (1 tbsp vinegar, 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp soy sauce)


1. Cut the fish into three slices. Season the fillets with salt and pepper before rolling them in flour.

2. Heat cooking oil in a pan over medium heat. Fry the fillets skin-side down for about 3 minutes. Flip and fry for another 3 minutes.

3. Julienne the myoga and shiso. Soak them in water and drain. Place the sauteed fillets on a serving plate and garnish with the condiments. Mix the seasonings to make a sauce and pour it over the fillets.

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