Trout, Southern Barbarian Style

Masu no Namban-Zuké

The “southern barbarians” referred to are the Portuguese and Dutch traders and missionaries who came to Japan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They showed the Japanese how to deep-fry fish and then pickle it in a spicy vinegar sauce. Any small river or lake fish, such as smelts or minnows, are tasty prepared this way, but I’m particularly fond of trout.

Ingredients

  • 4 very small whole trout, about 3 ounces each, or 2 whole trout, about 8 ounces each
  • ¼ cup cornstarch
  • vegetable oil for deep-frying (corn or soy oil with a few drops of dark aromatic sesame oil is best)

Pickling Sauce

  • cup dashi (basic sea stock)
  • cup rice vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 4 tablespoons mirin (syrupy rice wine)
  • 3 tablespoons saké (Japanese rice wine)
  • tablespoons sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 1 tōgarashi (dried red chili pepper)

Garnish

  • 1 scallion

Method

  1. Clean the trout and behead them. Slit and gut the belly cavity. Fillet the fish, trimming off the tail and fins. Rinse the cleaned fish thoroughly. If you are using two large trout, cut each in half to yield four equal-sized pieces from each fish. Gently pat the fish dry on both sides, then dust them with the cornstarch.
  2. In a wok or deep-fat fryer, heat the oil to approximately 375 degrees. Test by dropping a pinch of cornstarch in the oil: It should sink ever so slightly, surface, and then disperse immediately, sizzling but not coloring. Deep-fry the pieces of fish, two at a time, for 1½ minutes. With tongs or long cooking chopsticks, turn the fish a few times as you fry them. Drain the fish well on paper towels, and transfer them to a ceramic or glass container just large enough to allow the fish to lie submerged in the pickling sauce.
  3. In a small saucepan combine all the pickling sauce ingredients except the dried red pepper. Heat, stirring until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Remove the pan from the heat. Break the pepper pod in half, and discard the seeds if you wish to keep the fish just pleasantly spicy. If your taste runs toward the incendiary, add the seeds as well. Stir the pods (and seeds) into the sauce.
  4. Pour the sauce over the fish, and once there is no longer any steam, cover snugly with clear plastic wrap and refrigerate. Pickle the fish for at least 6 hours and up to 72 hours. (The extended pickling time will “melt” the bones and intensify the piquant taste markedly.)
  5. Just before serving, trim the scallion and chop it very finely. Rinse the chopped scallion under cold water to remove any slipperiness and gently squeeze it dry.
  6. A single serving is either a half of a larger fish or a whole smaller one. Lift the fish pieces from the pickling sauce and place them on small plates with a rim (to keep the sauce from running). Garnish each portion with a sprinkling of chopped scallion.