Char-grilled sanma (Pacific saury) is a quintessential autumn dish in Kyoto and chefs all have their signature way of preparing this simple and delicious fish. You can learn more about sanma from Elizabeth Andoh (in English). The standard presentation is to char-grill the fish whole and serve it with grated daikon radish and wedge of sudachi (a small tart citrus). In this blog entry, I have translated the recipe for sanma rice as it is prepared by Chef Sasaki, of Gion Sasaki restaurant. The key to perfecting this dish is the donabe in which the rice and fish are cooked – a donabe is an earthenware pot traditionally used for steaming rice.
Sanma gohan (Pacific saury and rice)
Chef Sasaki: “Char-grilled sanma with fragrant rice: the perfect combination, with grated daikon and a squeeze of sudachi. This is what I want on those autumn nights!”
2 whole Pacific saury
A little salt
100g grated daikon radish
A dash of light shoyu [soy sauce]
2 or 3 sudachi
2 cups of rice [in Japan, a ‘cup’ of rice is called a gō 合 – it is equal to 180mls]
360mls dashi stock with 2 tsp light shoyu
1. Remove the heads and fillet the fish, then sprinkle the fillets with salt and leave for two hours.
2. Insert a fine-bladed knife under the skin of the fillets to loosen the skin a little.
3. Using a fish-griller, use a high heat to char-grill the fillets, but stop when the flesh is still half-raw.
4. Add the dashi and the light shoyu to the rice and cook in a donabe [a traditional clay cooking pot]. When the rice begins to steam, place the fillets on top of the rice and continue cooking.
5. When the rice has cooked, spread the grated daikon over the top and then sprinkle sudachi juice over it.
Hiroshi Sasaki is the chef and owner of Gion Sasaki, an immensely popular Michelin 2-star kappō (counter style) restaurant down the slope from the Yasaka Pagoda, in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto. The restaurant is approached by a narrow laneway off the street, then up some stairs and around another bend to enter the restaurant itself. The decor is very minimalist and traditionally elegant, which makes the sight of a bricked pizza oven in the centre of the wall opposite the 16-seat mahogany counter seem to be jarringly incongruous at first sight. Sasaki-sensei says, “In 2006, this was the third time we’d moved, so I wanted the pizza oven to be something iconic in the new restaurant.” He wanted to create something unique that would stretch people’s perceptions about traditional Japanese cuisine in Kyoto and raise their expectations about the new restaurant. It is typical of Sasaki-sensei to keep pushing the boundaries.
But the chef’s main reason for installing the pizza oven was because of its heating potential. “The most I can get from a regular oven is about 300°, but with the pizza oven I can get close to 800°.” It seems that being able to utilise such extreme heat opens up new potential for creating innovative Japanese dishes. “I’ve tried cooking vegetables, meat, fish – all kinds of ingredients – to see what could be done with this oven,” he said. One advantage is that the heat comes from all sides and so there is no time wasted in turning things over like you would normally do with a grill. “The heat is applied very quickly so that the food stays fresher. For example, when I use the oven for cooking eel, the skin is really crispy and the flesh remains soft and moist. I even tried putting lettuce in there for 45 seconds and adding just a sprinkle of salt and olive oil and it was surprisingly delicious!”
“I generally keep the temperature at around 480°. It heats up to that temperature quickly and it’s easy to maintain that temperature, which is a characteristic of a gas oven, but I don’t think this would be possible with an electric pizza oven. And none of the heat is wasted: When I turn off the gas at the end of the day, and put in some potatoes, they are baked but still moist the next morning.” As we can see, mastering the pizza oven has created a great asset for Chef Sasaki!
Source: Interview with Chef Sasaki
Here is a humorous entry from a food forum about trying to get a reservation at Gion Sasaki:
It is unbelievably difficult to get a reservation at Gion Sasaki in Kyoto. This is the conversation when I called to make a reservation…
A: Hello. I’d like to make a reservation in July.
B: Of course. What day would you like to come in?
A: Do you have seating Thursday?
B: Sumimasen. No seats available that day.
A: How about Wednesday?
B: I’m sorry, all seats are taken that day as well.
A: Umm… when do you have seats that week?
B: There are no seats available the whole week.
A: So when is your next availability?
B: Next year.
A: … !!
Address: Yasaka-dori, Yamatooji Higashi iru, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Open: Lunch 12:00 – 14:00; Dinner 18:30 – 22:00
Closed: Sundays and every 2nd Monday
Prices: Lunch set ¥5,500; Dinner set ¥18,900 – 23,000 (Service charge 10%)