Chef Suzuki's Cured Mackerel

Chef Suzuki's Cured Mackerel


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.

Posted by Harris Salat in Fish | Permalink | Comments (6) | Email | Print

Comments (6)

Hi Harris, I fell in love with cured mackerel when I lived in Japan. Couldn't get enough of it. So good! Thanks for the instructions. Have yet to see mackerel at the local Whole Foods though. BTW, did you see the WSJ article on sushi chefs?
Harris - when you say that the 'curing removes the fishiness' are you talking about that deep oily flavor generally associated with mackerel? If so, the taste comes out mackerel-lite? Curious over here.
Hi Gene - Thanks for your comment. Yes, curing takes away that deep oily flavor, making the taste more subtle and delicate. I don't think of it as mackerel-lite, but its own thing. It's wonderful, actually. -- Harris
Hello, I stumbled upon your site and just want to thank you for posting this recipe! My grandmother (who passed away at 102 a couple of years ago) used to make this but none of us have a clue how she did it. She was a picture bride and went through the internment camps, so her style of cooking was pretty simple and basic but so delicious. She always made this for special occasions and I'm inspired to give it a try...
Hello Harris! Thanks for posting this! I was just surfing on the internet and I found your site! Love it! Keep it up! And of course, I am tempted to try this out very soon! Oh yeah, on your blog, from page 6 onwards, the 'NEXT' link doesn't seem to work?
Yeah we use this at the bar all the time. Saba loses quality quickly, which makes curing a necessity, but I like this sugar treatment of a fresh piece. Sujime is an additional technique where you put the mackerel fillets in a vinegar bath after the salt curing for around 15-20 minutes. For those dressings, these are my ratios Nihaizu is 2:2:2 ichiban dashi, su (rice vinegar), shoyu. Sanbaizu adds another equal part of sugar, I use mirin, chefs' choice really. You can use these on anything with a light taste, cucumber, carrot, daikon, crab, octopus salads. Chicken, too. Don't be afraid of using brown rice vinegar either, Spectrum bottles a nice one. Ponzu is a little bit more complicated, the ratio is 4:4:2:2:2:1, which is Shoyu, Vinegar, Ichiban Dashi, Nikiri-Mirin, Nikiri-Sake, and Yuzu citron juice. Nikiri is burning off the alcohol of the cooking wines. It makes a cleaner taste, it's a nice little thing to do for any of your dressings or dipping sauces. If you don't want to spend the money on yuzu, (a dollar per fruit) or can't find it, then yes, tangerine, grapefruit, or lemon works under fire. Ponzu is great for grilled things, white fish, shabu-shabu, I've seen guys use it on salmon. A personal favorite. These were taught to me from my sensei Ritsu Otsuka, who runs Izakaya Sozai in San Fransisco, but was with me at Toshi Suigura's sushi school in LA (a man notorious for opening Hama Sushi in Venice Beach during the 70s). Bar Hayama is his current operation. keep on rockin in the free world,

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