As some of you may recall from the article I wrote for Fishing Fury in 2005, autumn in Tokyo means gobies, and the prospect of goby cooking.
Last week I netted some 3 kilograms of gobies at the Sumida river estuary. These are smaller than the ones caught at sea, but equally delicious. They are too small to be filleted, but can be fried whole like whitebait. Another tasty, and traditional, method is to prepare the dish known in Japanese as kanro-ni, which literally translates as ‘sweet-dew-boil’ but in reality the fish come out candied, almost like toffee apple, but with a soy sauce flavour as well. Kanro-ni is traditionally a celebratory dish served at New Year’s, as fish served whole with their heads still on bring good luck to diners. It is also a traditional method of preserving fish, from an age when no refrigeration existed. Kanro-ni stored properly can last six months without chilling.
The process is rather labour and time intensive, and this is reflected in the price of kanro-ni bought in specialist stores: 100 grams can cost around ¥900 (nearly US$10). Taking the time and effort to make it at home is not only satisfying but economical as well, and makes a great gift for fishing buddies and neighbours. There are many different ways of making kanro-ni, and my recipe is a product of trial-and-error; and also secret! But I will outline the process here.
First the fish are washed and cleaned to remove the fish slime and any dirt and rubbish mixed in with the fish.
The gobies are then scaled and gutted. Since the Sumida river is not a particularly clean river, I make sure to remove all the innards of the fish; the intestines are usually full of river mud, and pollutants and chemicals accumulate in the liver of the gobies. Gobies taken from pristine waters can be left intact. The fish are then dried over a stove, with the fish taking on a slight roasted appearance. Then they are boiled in Japanese tea, until the fish are tender, bones and head included. This process can take 4 to5 hours.
Once the gobies are cooked through, the next stage is to add the soy sauce, sugar and other ingredients that both flavour the fish and preserve them. This is done in steps, over a very low fire, over several days. I use a mixture of soy sauce, sake, mirin (a sweetened variety of cooking sake), white sugar and brown sugar.
When done, the gobies take on a darkened, candied appearance. They can be eaten straight away, either as is or with rice or tea. I pack the remainder in plastic tupperware with a tight lid and store in a dark place; kept this way they will last for months. One of my fishing buddies who lives in Asakusa once said that my kanro-ni was better than the famous specialist shop ‘Ebiya’, something I consider the highest possible compliment. I make sure he gets a pot of my fish every time I make a batch!