The first time I saw a photo of nanban-zuke on Hiroyuki’s Blog on Japanese Cooking I instantly felt I would love it. It was original, not at all what I imagined to find in the Japanese cuisine, but certainly very promising. Hiroyuki kindly told me to look for the recipe in my beloved Japanese Cooking. A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji. Actually, he gave me even the exact page number (here I must add I was extremely proud to discover we had the same cookery book, although we probably use it and see it in a different way). Anyway, as all the Tsuji’s recipes, nanban-zuke proved excellent, so thank you, Hiroyuki, for one more useful tip!
Shizuo Tsuji explains the name “nanban” comes from the XVIth century when Spanish and Portuguese missionaries arrived to Japan. These “nanban-jin” (Southern barbarians) introduced hot red peppers to Japan and, since then, dishes containing these peppers often have the word “nanban” in their name. “Zuke” means “marinade”, so it’s often translated as “fish in barbarian style marinade”. Nanban-zuke (南蛮漬け) consist of frying fish or meat and then marinating it in a mixture of dashi (Japanese stock), soy sauce and vinegar with onions and, of course, hot peppers. During the time spent in the fridge the fish absorbs the vinegared hot marinade and becomes one of the most cooling Summer dishes I have ever tasted.
I was surprised, but when I first tasted nanban-zuke, it brought my childhood memories. In fact, when I was a child, my mum – who is far from being Japanese – would fry small fish and then put it into a jar filled with vinegar and spices for several weeks. I used to love this home-pickled fish as much as I adore the slightly different and more delicate Fish in Barbarian-Style Marinade.
This recipe can be made with both whole fish (gutted, scaled) or fillets. I opted for small fish fillets and cheap whiting (Merlangius merlangus) proved perfect here (alas, I haven’t found the Japanese name). If you use whole fish, you should keep it for one or two days in the fridge (the bones have to soften so that you can eat them too). Fillets require 3-4 hours only. I am sorry to tell the Japanese cuisine purists i didn’t like it with rice. The best company proved to be fresh French crunchy baguette with a thin layer of good quality butter…
(I have slightly modified the proportions and added more peppers and more onion.)
Preparation: 1 hour + 3-4 hours in the fridge
Ingredients (serves 4):
600-700 g small fish fillets
125 ml rice vinegar
170 ml dashi
2 tablespoons mirin
3 tablespoons soy sauce (or more if using low-sodium soy sauce, I have put 6 tablespoons)
3-4 dried hot red peppers (or more if your peppers are not very hot or if you like hot dishes, keep the seeds if you want it really hot)
1 big onion
Slice the onion and fry it until it softens.
Crush the red peppers.
Bring to boil the vinegar, the dashi, the mirin and the soy sauce with red peppers. Put aside.
Add the onions to the marinade.
Salt the fillets slightly on both sides and leave for 15 minutes.
Pat dry the fillets, cut them into 2-3 pieces (not obligatory, but I found it easier to handle with chopsticks), dredge them in flour, shake off the excess flour and deep-fry about 5 minutes or until they start becoming golden.
Put the warm fish in a shallow dish.
Bring the marinade to boil and pour over the fish.
Let the dish cool and then put into the fridge, covered, for at least 3 hours.
Serve with whatever you want, but do try the crunchy baguette and butter.