Waters Dry Up
When the sweet smell of orange tea olive flowers waft through the air, it is truly autumn. After the rice is harvested, the paddy fields that were drained in advance slowly dry up into mud cracks. Darkness descends earlier in the evenings and with that, my visits to the fields become few and far between.
Around the end of September, vertical banners in the shop front would announce the arrival of new rice at our local supermarket. The rice would be followed by a flood of seasonal delicacies such as Kyoho grapes, Kosui pears, Matsutake mushrooms, and most important, the pacific saury fish, which is my favorite fall delicacy called sanma in Japanese.
“Let’s eat sanma tonight,” my mother would say as soon as she spots the fresh fish in the supermarket aisle. Their long silver bodies are piled in a Styrofoam container packed with ice. “Pick a plump one with clear eyes and yellow nose,” she would say as she passes me a tong. As I pick each fish, she would indicate with a nod or shake of her head to put them into the plastic bag.
When I was growing up in Japan in the late 70s, we ate a lot of fish prepared Himono-style. Himono are split, cleaned, salted, and partially dried small fish, mostly skipjacks and horse mackerels. Raw fish like sashimi and sushi were only served on special days when we had guests. Sanma is unique because it is only eaten for a short period in autumn, grilled and served whole with its intestines intact.
To prepare a sanma, the fish is salted generously on the outside and popped into the fish grill —every Japanese household stove is equipped with one— to be roasted under the open flame for a few minutes. It is usually served on a long plate, uncut, horizontally with its head pointed to the left. A little mound of grated daikon radish topped with a dash of soy sauce should accompany it on the side, together with a wedge of Kabosu lime to squeeze over the caramelized skin. I enjoy eating sanma because its salty and oily meat paired perfectly with the new rice, which comes out of the rice cooker softer than older rice.
The other reason I loved eating sanma when I was young was to prove my fish-eating skills to my parents. This is because the things my parents particularly respected were proper greetings and excellent chopstick skills. “So-and-so can’t even greet people properly!” my mother would say about one of my friends who didn’t say hello to her on the street.
She also said, “a person who holds chopsticks properly and eats a fish clean to the bone has a good upbringing.” Sanma is very difficult to eat clean because it has numerous fine bones along its narrow body, but because we were well-trained by my parents, my sisters and I were expert fish eaters at a young age. My parents didn’t praise us easily, but they always complimented us for eating fish properly.
Several years ago, I was in the town of Tsu on the shores of Ise bay in Mie prefecture. I was interpreting for a group of people from the US visiting pottery towns in Japan. One night, the group photographer and I ate at a little local Japanese bar with two of the American members of the group. It was sanma season and one of the Americans ordered a sanma. When the fish arrived at the table grilled to perfection, he asked for a fork and a knife and started eating the sanma. Everyone, including the bar owners and the other customers surrounded the table and watched him artfully eat the fish with the cutlery. When he finished and the sanma was eaten clean to the bone, the crowd broke into cheers. So, it’s not just my parents, but many Japanese people have unconditional respect for anyone who knows how to graciously eat a fish.