Aji no hiraki (鯵の開き), or Salted and Grilled Horse Mackerel

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!

Special equipment:

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.

40 Replies to “Aji no hiraki (鯵の開き), or Salted and Grilled Horse Mackerel”

  1. The photo does not look ugly or scary to me, quite the opposite, its making me salivate. Probably because I love salted/dried fish. I have cured and grilled fish but never thought of drying it in the oven. Great idea, I will certainly do this next time. Drying really adds nice texture and flavour.

    “a toothbrush to clean off the fish blood”. Is there a fishy taste/aroma when you use the toothbrush for brushing your teeth? It might complement the toothpaste I suppose

    1. Thank you, Mr. Three-Cookies! I am happy it appeals to you! If you don’t count the cutting open and cleaning, the whole preparation is really easy!
      After brushing your teeth you have a very original breath 😉 Seriously, I have bought a cheap toothbrush and now only use it for aji no hiraki.

    1. Thank you so much, Hiroyuki! As you see the fish started to desintegrate when I transferred it to the plate… And it wasn’t aas “plump” and fleshy as the ones I see on your blog. I still have to practice!
      Thank you for the correction! I will correct my mistake straight away (sadly the episode 9 must be the one we haven’t found with English subtitles… There are two I think I didn’t watch because of the subtitles…). I see now there ARE English subtitles on the mysoju website! I don’t know how we might have missed this episode! Thank you once more!

  2. Hi Sissi! We (including kids) love Aji no hiraki, but I usually get one from supermarket that is ready to cook – I never do the drying process. It looks a lot of work and you did such a fantastic job!! My simple dinner would be this fish with daikon oroshi, rice, and TONJIRU!! I need to see this movie. Never saw it before, but when I saw tonjiru being cooked… oh my that’s going to be my dinner. My favorite miso soup has been tonjiru. I laughed when I saw this picture with your title. So funny – I know what you mean about scaring about people. I actually have one photo that I’ve been waiting to post. Guess what, I’m going to share it next Monday! You gave me courage!

      1. I know something about trying to make my brain work without caffeine 😉 (Actually I haven’t even noticed your mistake).

    1. Thank you so much, Nami! Unfortunately I can’t buy it ready-made, but maybe it’s better: this way I can learn how to do this from the scratch! I have just realised this is probably the only Japanese dish which doesn’t require any Japanese ingredients (not even soy sauce!), so as long as I know how to do this I can have it anywhere in the world!
      I just had to check what tonjiru was 😉 ) I always learn new things from you!.
      You should absolutely see this film. I am sure you would love it. It’s so moving and the atmosphere is so comforting and homely… (even for someone who has never been to Japan!). I am looking forward to see your Monday post! It’s a pity to stop oneself from posting only because something doesn’t look appetising for many people. With food it’s not that obvious… I have also now something sweet to post which is far from good-looking, but so yummy!

      1. That’s so true! You can make it anywhere even without a Japanese market around! In the video, they zoom in to the menu on the wall, and that is Tonjiru and the rest are all drinks!! He says “This is the only menu I prepare, and I cook whatever customer orders” or something like that (sorry I can’t remember exact word). And then it shows him cooking tonjiru. And I forgot to say, I’d go out to this restaurant with you every night – we can finally drink shochu together. Heheehee. Now after looking at your post, I don’t think mine doesn’t look even scary anymore. HAHA.

        1. I have only noticed there is shochu on the menu 😉 Somehow my attention (like memory) is very selective 😉
          I would love to go there with you too! Can you imagine such a place hardly 100 m from our houses? I would be there almost every night.

  3. Sissi, you are one brave soul! I will be brutally honest in saying that I have a fairly delicate stomach when it comes to animal food but I find this very interesting and, from my perspective, adventurous. Great theme song – loved the clip!

    1. Thank you so much, Kelly! The taste is very original and this method of fish grilling is worth trying. It is a big adventure indeed every time I have to cut open the horse mackerel 😉 I am always wondering: will the head fall off or not? (Most of the times it falls away on either stage of the whole process). I am happy you like the song (some think it’s very sad).

  4. Hahaha Sissi, you are not kidding when you said this is one of the most unphotogenic fish! I was a little shocked when your posting pulled up, and this is a girl who grew up at Taiwan, who has seen/eaten quite a bit of scary looking food items. Loved this posting!

    1. Jeno, I simply thought either I don’t know how to make a good-looking aji (it looks much better at Hiroyuki’s blog) or I don’t know how to take photos, or both… but it was too good to stop myself from posting. Food can sometimes be beautiful, but sometimes very unattractive and delicious at the same time. (Frankly I also thought there was something funny about the scariness of the cut-open horse mackerel 😉 )

  5. This is why I need to travel again, we could not even purchase that around here in the backwoods of the midwest. Another reason I am excited to be moving to the coast.

    I kind of like the look of the horse macherel because it is so different from what you normally see. If you pulled the colors to a contrasty black and white photo it could practically be art.

    1. Thank you, Clarkie! You have almost made me believe the photo is not awful 🙂 Frankly I think whatever I would do, my aji no hiraki couldn’t look as appealing as a fresh fruit tart or your watermelon drink… On the other hand, I should believe such a great photographer as you!
      Good luck with your moving! Moving to the region where you find lots of different food produce and products must be very exciting!

      1. See, that is where I have a slight advantage *whispers* my day job is as a photographer 🙂 Although photographing food is a little different from my usual projects.

        I’m excited, west coast, here I come!

        1. You have a wonderful profession! Now I’ll be really nervous every time I post 😉 I hope you will start making more preserves there!

  6. This is just fascinating. Unphotogenic food is frustrating, but hey this is clearly a labor of love. Anytime you need a toothbrush before eating fish. Thanks for this post, it was really informative to this yank!

  7. This is type of fish where it involves drying, and salting as a process is something that I and many Filipinos are very accustomed to eating. We love this type of dish, Sissi! You’re not alone in having a horrible (no fun intended) time taking picture of fish and like you, I have to make the dish on several occasions before I could produce a decent looking photo.

    Thank you so much for posting this dish, Sissi! Have a nice weekend to you.

    ~ ray ~

    1. I didn’t know such a preparation was popular in the Filipino cuisine (but then I hardly know anything about this cuisine…). Thank you for the kind comment! Have a great weekend too!

    1. I must admit I am often attracted to the food which doesn’t look “standardly” appealing or which is badly photographed, but there is something mysterious which makes me want to try it… Thank for your comment!

  8. Hi Sissi – as Kelly says – I think you’re very adventurous, although I’m not sure if I could make this myself (though if I do I’ll be sure to use my wife’s toothbrush to clean the blood and not mine! :D). I’m really not skilled at all in preparing fish and always end up wrecking it… I’d love to take a course in preparing fish.

    I do love mackerel though, and I like your suggestion of eating it on crunchy bread. The photo is awesome, although I can understand your dilemma. You’ve done a good job of making it look good, with something which perhaps isn’t the most easily photographed food! Great job 🙂

    1. Thank you, Charles!
      Preparing fish without courses or training is very difficult indeed. I also destroy fish a bit sometimes, but there are many tutorial videos on internet and in the case of aji no hiraki these were very helpful, as well as Hiroyuki’s photos. If I had a “real” fishmonger in my city, I could ask him to prepare the fish in any way I want (although I’m not sure about cutting open… European fishmongers have never heard about this way to prepare the fish). Unfortunately the best source of fish here is a big market for restaurants, where I can’t always ask what I want. I have a choice: preparing the fish on my own or not eating it. Of course I choose the former, although I’d like to take a course too!
      One more thing: beware; this is the horse mackerel (aji in Japanese), not mackerel (saba). Its taste,,texture or look have got nothing to do with the popular in Europe mackerel. In French horse mackerel is “chinchard”, not “maquereau” and this fish is not very popular in France (I am lucky to live in a very international city in Switzerland too!).

      1. Aah, curious, I’ve never heard nor seen of “chinchard” before – I’ll have to keep an eye out. On the subject of fish prep… I was thinking of doing a course at Rick Stein’s “Fish School” in England. They do all sorts of courses… weekends, week-long etc. It’s definitely something I’d have to plan in advance (they book up quickly too) but the cost isn’t that prohibitive… maybe €500 for a weekend course which includes meals and accomodation too.

        1. I also thought at the beginning horse mackerel was similar to “maquereau”… I am lucky my Swiss fishmonger carries it regularly! The French one almost never has it! I would love to take this course! Sounds reasonable if meals and accomodation are included.

  9. I know this might not look beautiful some even find it smelly but I love this type of fishes, another one will be the smoked ones. Yum!

    1. Raymund, I also love smoked fish, one of my favourite is the mackerel (not the horse mackerel, which I think isn’t smoked in Europe). This horse mackerel does smell very strong! I have to open all the windows afterwards 😉

  10. Hi, Sissi! Thanks for mentioning the Shinya Shokudo! I always enjoy watching movies or TV series about food and cooking. I`ve watched Antique Cake Store and I loved it so much that I wondered if there is any other Japanese dorama about food. Now I`m watching the 2nd eps of Shinya Shokudo and I can`t stop! I live in Japan but I think I`ve never tried this aji hiraki before. I do see it a lot at the stores but I`m just not sure if the bones are edible or not. Are they edible? Now you made me want to eat it with a bowl of hot rice!

    1. Hi Arudhi! I am so happy to meet another fan of Shinya Shokudo! It’s such a pity there are only ten episodes… but I watch them over and over again, hoping they will make a second season. I have never heard of Antique Cake Store, thank you for the idea. Otherwise, there is for example Osen, another ‘foodie’ series, but nothing beats Shinya Shokudo.
      You are lucky! If I lived in Japan and could buy already dried aji no hiraki, ready to grill, I would have it every week! I don’t think bones are edible (I have never tried eating bones). Thanks for your comment!

  11. Hi Sissi,

    I will try to make mackerels the next days using my machine for drying food. Just a few hours layered in the trays by max. 40 Celsius:
    will hopefully do the job. Unphotogenic: Whole fish are always looking a little bit dead and nearly gone while roasted or grilled or smoked . But the butterfly version is something special 🙂 Doesn’t matter, better than near live squids in pieces climbing from your plate. At least: it is the taste that counts.

    1. Kiki, living squids moving on my plate would definitely look scarier than my aji no hiraki 🙂
      Food dryer is an excellent idea to substitute the sun and the wind! I am very curious what your aji will taste like.

  12. I know this post is from a while ago, but I was wondering if you could help me. I tried preparing Spanish mackerel in the manner you suggested, and then convection baking at 150F (sorry, US citizens with our horrid fahrenheit system) for four hours. The fish was not only not dry, it was cooked and completely wet and falling apart. Could you please tell me what I am doing wrong?

    1. Hi, Lee. This might be an old post, but I prepare aji no hiraki quite regularly and it always works… Anyway, this is a way to prepare horse mackerel (aji), not Spanish mackerel, which are for me completely different fish species (they come from different families) and I always wonder why both are called “mackerel” in English (Spanish mackerel looks different and is an oily fish, while horse mackerel isn’t oily). I have never tried drying Spanish mackerel, so I cannot give you precise advice, but you can try experimenting and turn the oven fan on as well as lower the temperature next time (apart from the fish difference, maybe your oven cooks much quicker than mine?), for example to the lowest position you have… If you don’t have a fan, open the oven door maybe while drying? (I don’t have fan in my old oven, cannot open the door while baking, so I have never done it, but it might be useful for you). Of course make sure you dry the fish well before putting into the oven. Good luck!

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