Grilled Mackerel

Grilled Mackerel

Melissa Clark's article on cooking bluefish and preparing oily fish Japanese-style. Learn about traditional Japanese techniques for mackerel and other oily fish, and find out why these fish are so popular in Japan.

Melissa Clark's excellent article on cooking bluefish that appeared recently in the N.Y. Times got me thinking about preparing oily fish, Japanese-style. Oily fish like mackerel, herring, anchovy, and, yes, bluefish don't suffer from overfishing (learn more here) -- but in America, at least, they often fall victim to undereating (is that a word?). That's a shame, because these fish are so rich, juicy, delicious and flavorful, and a snap to cook. In Japan, mackerel, herring and anchovy are enormously popular (although I haven't seen bluefish there); I've been to joint outside Tokyo that served anchovy over thirty ways, while mackerel has long historical significance in Kyoto (read about the Mackerel Road). So why aren't we eating more of these fish?

Here's an absolutely simple way to prepare mackerel, perfect for summer. In her piece, Melissa talks about using lemon to cut the fish's oiliness. But when cooking Japanese-style, pair the fish with grated daikon (daikon oroshi) and soy sauce to balance the oiliness. Daikon, in fact, has natural enzymes that help you digest rich foods. So here's the technique for the mackerel in the picture above, which you can try with other oily fish, too:

  1. Liberally salt a filet of mackerel (Boston mackerel is perfect) and let it sit at room temperature for 20 minutes. Salting concentrates flavor, expels water and makes the flesh denser for grilling.

  2. Grate a piece of daikon, using a coarse grater (Japanese stores sell inexpensive graters specially made for daikon, which is what I use, very convenient). Set aside.

  3. Preheat a heavy cast iron skillet with the cover on, I mean really preheat it - you want that sucker hot. I love cooking with cast iron pots, they're extremely versatile and distribute heat so much better than stainless steel. This is the skillet I use. It rocks.

  4. Wipe off any excess moisture on the fish. Cut an X into the skin of the fish so it doesn't shrink when it hits the heat.

  5. Add a little high-smoke-point oil to the skillet -- do this carefully, the skillet is now theoretically super hot -- and coat the entire surface.

  6. Add the fish, skin side down. Cover and sear for 2 minutes. Uncover, turn and sear on the other side for about 2 minutes, or until the fish is just cooked through - you don't want to over cook. Open a window or turn on the hood, in case it gets smoky.

  7. Serve with a clump of daikon oroshi on the side. Pour a few drops of soy sauce on the daikon oroshi. Eat together with the fish, enjoy!