Concluded my first fishing trip of the new year with a catch of hirame (bastard halibut; Linnaeus’ Paralichthys olivaceus), a traditional winter sport fish here in Japan. Click through for the full story.
The most famous hirame fishery in the country is the Pacific shore of Ibaraki and Chiba prefectures, but in fact you can catch these fish in most parts of Japan. This time I headed to the port of Nagai which is on the western, Sagami Bay shore of the Miura peninsula. It was still dark when we went aboard, and it was the coldest day yet I think this winter – about freezing during the night, and the forecast said it would rise to the dizzy heights of 3°C later in the day. It felt much colder than that as the sky was overcast and we were treated to a very strong, very unseasonal north-westerly wind, the Japanese version of the mistral perhaps, which blew all day. This time of the year Sagami Bay is usually very calm but 2012 was a year for highly unusual weather, and since the end of December we have had strong, notherly winds blowing straight from the continent, bringing the cold of Siberia with them. Just my luck, I was sat amidships on the port side which put me in the shade of what little sun there was, being hidden by the bridge. Sometimes I lost all power of movement in my fingers, other times it felt like an incalculable number of minute shards of glass were being driven into my hands; but I was soon distracted by the fishing however and managed to forget the cold long enough to land a middling-sized yellowtail.
At about the second or third fishing point I had a good hirame on, but after weathering the initial run of the fish it bit clean through my leader before I could reel it in. On two other occasions I had fish partly eating the bait, but not being hooked. In this kind of fishing we use live sardines hooked through the nose and sometimes a double setup with a second smaller hook set in the sardine’s back behind the dorsal fin or in the flesh just above the anal fin.
Sometimes the fish can eat everything but the head:
With these misses I was a bit worried the day would be another trip with no hirame in the bag. It is not the kind of fishing where the fish bite all day; you get a couple of chances and have to count on being lucky. This time however, my luck was in: I got a good take, allowed the fish plenty of time to swallow the bait and hook, gave it a good strike to send the hook home and began reeling. The water was only about twenty fathoms so it wasn’t long before I saw the mottled-brown form under the surface, the skipper leapt onto deck to net the fish for me and I boated my first Sagami Bay hirame! Visions of engawa, sashimi and fried hirame flooded my mind but I had the presence of mind to ask my fishing buddy to take a photo for me.
After about 10am the fish stopped biting and the next two hours were tortuous, for those who had not caught fish. I drank a couple of cans of shochu “to keep the cold out” and gloated over my catch of hirame and yellowtail, and helped my fishing buddy who is growing increasingly far-sighted and has trouble tying knots and the like. Anyway, when our time was up we headed back to port after a half-day on the water and sod’s law being so, just as we packed up and steered a course for Nagai the wind died down and the sun came out. I gave my yellowtail to my mate who did not have any luck with the hirame, and after changing out of our fishing overalls we headed over to the skipper’s house, a short walk from the harbour moorings, for the complimentary lunch included in the price of the charter. I spotted some local fishermen who clearly had had a good day out on the water, and the after parts of their buss had all the appearance of a mass squid pogrom – flayed open and hung up to dry in the sea air.
After washing our hands and sitting down in the dining room, the dishes appeared rapidly: conch sashimi, deep-fried octopus legs and the life-saver, a large bowl of udon noodles in rich, blistering-hot dashi soup, with a number of the usual accoutrements. After seven hours on the water, chilled through-and-through with noses streaming and extremities numbed, there are few words that can express how good that bowl of udon was!
Having eaten up our lunch we said our thanks and left. As a going-home present we were each very kindly given an angler’s 2013 calendar (mine is now up on the wall in my room) and we bumped into the skipper and his son on their way back from tidying up the boat and they sent us off in a most polite and obliging manner. By car it is only about an hour back to east Tokyo from Nagai, and we made good time. The first thing I did on reaching home was to run a hot, hot bath! After the bath, and then refreshing myself with some more shochu, I filletted the hirame. Like all flatfish it is pretty easy to do, the only important thing to remember is to not cut yourself on their fearsome teeth. Soon I had the fish filletted and ready to prepare, and the bare bones left as a sort of barbaric fetiso. Some people like to cure and deep-fry the bones, but this specimen was a bit too big for that.
The first most obvious dish is sashimi. Hirame should generally be cut as thin as possible – thin enough to still see the pattern on the plate – and it is just as good with either wasabi-soy sauce or ponzu (soy sauce soured and thinned with citrus).
Another way I like to eat hirame sashimi is when the fish is seasoned with lemon juice, olive oil and sea-salt, and dressed with capers. It sounds like an odd combination but it really goes well with a firm, white fish like hirame. Obviously this is only really good when the fish is really fresh, killed that day and with the flesh still “alive.” The sordid frozen things you can get at the supermarket would probably make a most sordid, insipid dish if eaten like this.
Eating sashimi is all well and good, but it does leave the skin left over. One way to deal with this is to chop the skin into pieces, lightly season them and deep fry them till crisp. They make an excellent snack with beer or drinks, and I give them some bite by dipping them in ketchup enlivened with lime juice and lots of hot sauce.
I usually eat the ventral, belly fillets as sashimi as they are thinner and more delicate. The upper fillet is best dealt with cooked, in this case I made them according to the French method à la meunière, with the sauce being no more than butter, lemon and parsley. Such good fish requires little more.
Many thanks to Noboru-maru (they do not have a website) sailing from Nagai harbour, Kanagawa Prefecture, for the great day out!