Aji no hiraki (鯵の開き) is probably the least photogenic dish I have ever made. This is the reason why I have waited several months and went through at least a dozen of long photo sessions before posting this recipe. Every time I prepared this dish I took photos and every time they looked as scary and as uninviting as the one you see above. I decided to post it anyway, hoping you will believe me if I say it has an extraordinary taste and figures on the top 5 list of my favourite fish dishes. In short, appearances can be deceptive.
The first time I stumbled upon aji no hiraki was on Hiroyuki’s blog on Japanese Cooking. It was on the long list of dishes featured in my beloved Japanese manga and film series, Shinya Shokudo 深夜食堂 (Late-Night Diner). Unfortunately, the manga wasn’t translated, so I cannot read it, but the film is moving, full of subtle humour and if the bar where all the episodes are filmed existed, I would love to be there every night. Every episode focuses on a particular dish and a character and I really regret the series has only one, short season. Here is the theme song I also adore:
Anyway, aji no hiraki (鯵の開き), or cut-open and grilled horse mackerel, is featured in the manga 68th episode and the 9th episode of the series (thank you, Hiroyuki, for the correction!). After my questions about the mysterious dish, Hiroyuki kindly promised to make it, take the photos and publish the recipe, the things for which I will always be very grateful. (See here his detailed photos and helpful instructions). The preparation consists of cutting open the whole fish (head included), soaking it in a brine and then drying it in the sun. Afterwards the horse mackerel is grilled.
Drying in the sun requires two factors: a sunny, warm weather (but not too hot and preferably a bit windy) and a drying net. Unfortunately I don’t have a special drying net, which keeps off the flies and other bugs (not to mention the lack of the sun the first time I made it), so I decided to dry my fish in a slightly warm oven (65°C). I suppose sun-dried mackerel tastes better, but I was completely satisfied with my oven drying too! Of course soaking, drying and grilling are easy steps, although time-consuming. The stage I find particularly tricky is cutting open the fish If you have a good fishmonger who knows how to cut open the fish (something i have never seen in Europe), you will skip the only difficult part. If you don’t have this possibility (like me), Hiroyuki referred to this website (in Japanese) with very helpful fish preparation photos.
Even after several times the cutting open process is not an easy one for me, but the final result is definitely worth it. The mackerel acquires a very deep, buttery taste, reminding me of a slightly smoked fish. Even though it’s a Japanese recipe, after many tests I must say it tastes the best with crunchy baguette spread with butter. I hope you will not be shocked if I say it’s a wonderful, nourishing and healthy breakfast dish. Thank you, Hiroyuki, for introducing to me this fantastic and unusual delicacy!
a toothbrush to clean off the fish blood
(a drying net if you dry the fish in the sun)
Preparation: 5-6 hours (can be done in two days)
Ingredients (serves 2-4):
4 medium-sized horse mackerels (aji)
1 litre water
50 g salt
Cut the fish belly and remove the innards.
If you want, you can scale it, but I didn’t.
Cut the fish lengthwise from the head to the tail, very carefully so that you don’t cut it through.
Remove the gills (at this step the head sometimes falls off… so be careful) and wash the fish with a toothbrush, removing the slightest traces of blood.
(Look at this website for a detailed description.)
Dissolve the salt in the water and soak the fish for about 40 minutes. (If the final result is too salty or not salty enough, the following time increase the soaking time).
Dry the fish with paper towels, but don’t rinse it.
Put it in the net and sun-dry first open side up, then open side down for minimum 4 hours up to half a day (it depends on the sun and temperature).
If you want to dry the fish in the oven, preheat the oven to 65°C.
Put the fish on a sheet of baking paper.
Dry for about 4 hours, first the open side up, then the skin side up.
(At this stage you can grill the fish or put it into the fridge and grill it the following day.)
Preheat the oven upper grill (broiler), put the fish the open side up and grill until slightly golden (I like mine a bit drier, so I grill it more).
Serve with whatever you want, but do try with buttered crunchy baguette.