At a recent master class for chefs at New York's James Beard Foundation (organized by the Gohan Foundation -- thanks to both for the invite), Chef Toshio Suzuki of Sushi Zen introduced Japanese vinegar and talked about its uses. He covered a lot of fascinating ground but to me the highlight was his treatment of mackerel. Simple but so subtle and delicious.
Before I go farther, let me first say: If you haven't eaten at Sushi Zen, make a point to go. Chef Suzuki is an absolute master sushi chef and an extremely gracious man who has mentored a generation of Japanese chefs in New York. Dining omakase, at the counter, is a fundamental lesson in the technical and artistic mastery of Japanese cooking. And an unforgettable sensory experience as well. It ain't cheap, but to me, I'd rather have one of Chef Suzuki's meals than a dozen ho-hum sushi dinners. I look at sushi as a special occasion experience, something to really savor from the hands of a master. Like from the hands of Mr. Suzuki.
Okay, back to vinegar and mackerel! Among the vinegar treatments Mr. Suzuki discussed were nihai zu, a combination of rice vinegar and soy sauce with a hint of mirin; sanbai zu, rice vinegar, soy sauce and sugar; tosa zu, a combination of sanbai zu, mirin and bonito flakes; and pon zu, Japanese citrus (daidai, or else grapefruit, lemon and orange juice), vinegar, soy sauce and bonito dashi. I'm going to dig further to find proportions -- and would like to ask for your help, too. Do you know how to make any of these? Also, what foods do they go with? Traditional pairing combinations? Please comment!
Chef Suzuki also demonstrated his approach to preparing mackerel. White this fish has a deep history in Japan (there's the historic mackerel road from the coast to Kyoto, where sabazushi is a delicacy to this day), it gets short shrift here in America, which is a shame. It's flavorful, delicious, and a sustainable, plentiful catch we should be eating more of. Try it the way Chef Suzuki demonstrated and you'll know what I mean. Here's what he did:
To being with, he cured filets of mackerel in a two step process. First he coated them with sugar for 40 minutes, which extracts moisture from the fish. Then he rinsed off the sugar and coated the mackerel with salt for 1 hour, which cured it. Mr. Suzuki said he preferred to keep the fish in a traditional ice box rather than a refrigerator during the two curing steps. The reason is that an ice box has natural humidity that aids in the process, which you lose in a dry refrigerator. (Of course, if a fridge is what you got, like me, it's fine, too.)
Now, while the fish is transforming, prepare the condiment, called mizore zu, which is a combination of grated daikon (daikon oroshi) and rice vinegar flavored with mirin and citrusy yuzu peel. To cook, first combine the liquid in the following proportions in a bowl: 150ml vinegar, 100ml dashi and 50ml mirin. Now add it to a saucepan along with daikon oroshi and yuzu peel so the daikon is just soaked through but not soupy. Heat gently to combine the flavors.
When the mackerel is ready, slice and serve with the vinegared daikon oroshi on top. The curing removes the fishiness from the mackerel, so it's delicate and subtle. It pairs beautifully with the bright, citrusy flavors of the grated daikon. Enjoy.