By Mari Nameshida / Special to The Japan NewsThis month’s featured recipe is nanban-zuke, one of the most popular dishes in my cooking classes for non-Japanese people. The dish usually features cooked fish marinated in a vinegar-based sauce along with some fresh vegetables. It tastes a bit like pickles and is basically the same as escabeche dishes from Mediterranean cuisine.
The fish for nanban-zuke can be mackerel, salmon or sardines. Even chicken can be used. No matter what ingredients you include, it’s called nanban-zuke if they’re cooked and marinated in a sweet vinegar-based sauce.
Do you know what the word “nanban” means? It generally refers to Portugal and Spain, while “zuke” means “pickled” or “marinated.” The first Europeans on Japanese soil were Portuguese, who arrived on Tanegashima island in southern Kyushu in the 1500s. Japanese people then started to call any product influenced by Portugal or Spain “nanban.”
Until then, we didn’t have tempura or castella cakes, and we didn’t cook with chili or vinegar very much. These Europeans introduced Christianity to Japan, but more than religion, they influenced our food culture a lot.
Several hundred years later, we consider nanban-zuke part of Japanese cuisine, and it’s a very common dish in home cooking.
When people cook this dish, they lightly coat the whole fish, especially small sardines or mackerel, with potato starch or flour, often before deep-frying. It’s one of the best ways to eat tiny fish. But I know some people don’t like to eat small fish whole, or dislike the smell of bluefish. I often use boned salmon fillets cut into chunks and cook them with a small portion of oil, as in my recipe. You don’t need to deep-fry the fillets because there are no small bones or fish heads.
For the vegetables, we often use thinly sliced fresh onions and carrots. Since they’re seasoned with vinegar like pickles, it’s easier for everyone to eat. If you like pumpkin and eggplant, cut the pumpkin into thin pieces or the eggplant into big chunks. It’s nice to deep-fry them without coating them and to marinate them in the same sauce.
You can eat this dish right away while slightly warm, or even as a cold appetizer after marinating for a day in a refrigerator. We usually have this with rice, but it goes well with baguettes and you can also make sandwiches after draining the sauce well. It gets saltier the longer it marinates, so please taste occasionally and drain the sauce completely when you don’t want it to be any saltier. You can keep it for at least four days in the refrigerator.
Mari’s recipe for nanban-zuke
Ingredients (serves 4):
4 fillets fresh salmon, each 100g
2 onions, thinly sliced
1 carrot, peeled into thin strips
3 bell peppers, cut into thin pieces
9 tbsp rice vinegar
9 tbsp sake
9 tbsp mirin
6 tbsp soy sauce
1-2 dried hot chili peppers, seeded
1. Mix all the ingredients for the marinade in a saucepan, bring to a boil and immediately turn off the heat. Transfer the mixture to a shallow pan and add the vegetables.
2. Cut each salmon fillet into four or five pieces and remove any pin bones.
3. Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan. Thinly coat the fish with potato starch. Cook until both sides become golden brown and the flesh is just cooked through. Transfer the salmon to the marinade while hot. When it has cooled, cover the shallow pan and place in the refrigerator. Allow the salmon and vegetables to soak in the marinade. You can eat them after marinating for an hour, but they are also great after one day.
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