Had another great day out on the Yutaka-maru, this time fishing for the local seasonal specialty octopus.
Of course every fishing trip on the Yutaka-maru starts with an immense meal the previous night at the izakaya in Nakaminato called Shutenno, who did not disappoint this time either. After a few beers (they are one of the few places I have been in Japan where they serve adult-sized beers) I ordered some sashimi, leaving the choice of fish to the boss’ discretion with the proviso he did not add any octopus so as not to curse my fishing the following day. A fine selection of parrotfish, bigeye tuna, yellowtail, ark shell-fish and little gobies arrived, and I made short work of them.
After swinging the lead with some of the regulars at the counter and finishing proceedings with a customary ramen, I stumbled back to the boathouse and met up with Captain Yutaka to go over my fishing tackle. Japanese octopus game fishing is no matter of veering out a bunch of pots over the stern, but instead uses a strange device known as ten-ya which is fished with a handline. We used Japanese sanma (saury) as bait, though almost anything will do: a squid, salmon fillet, crab or even pork belly; we used sanma as it is one of the cheapest whole fish to buy in the supermarket at this time of the season.
The octopus reside close inshore, in rocky shallows with a swift current – death to any fishing boat that doesn’t keep an eye on the shore, and also one’s tackle is easily snagged on the bottom. If you happen to be lucky and catch an octopus, you are rewarded with one of the best seafood treats you will ever eat; in fact you may be at a disadvantage, as you from then on you will be unable to bear the hideous frozen, watery chewy monstrosities that serve as octopus in most restaurants and supermarkets. Apparently this year has not been a good year for octopus fishing in Ibaraki, but even so the first one I caught was as big as my face.
It was well below freezing when we set out before dawn but as the sun rose over the Pacific – a brilliant sight, in winter – there was not a cloud above nor a breath of wind and it warmed up a bit. By 9am it was warm enough for me to remove my Russian fur hat and thermal coat and fish in just my Guernsey frock, with a few nips of kanchuhai to “keep the cold out.” I was lucky enough to snag another octopus and as noon approached, was able to further devote myself to the drinks in my cool-box and the one-man oden that Captain Yutaka served to each angler as his special treat.
Whilst fishing the animals are kept alive in a net suspended in the live-well, with the mouth of the net trebly tied with a stout line; the octopus is a remarkably intelligent and nimble creature and can escape from almost anywhere, even breaking out of bags or ice chests. When it was time to pack up and head home I despatched my catch in the orthodox manner – a spike or knife sent deep right between the eyes, which kills the unfortunate creature in an instant. Each octopus is then placed in a Ziplock bag and stored in a cool-box with plenty of ice-seawater. This keeps the meat fresh but not spoiled by contact with ice or freshwater.
Back home, after an uneventful train ride home and a hot bath, it is time to set to the octopus. The innards and slime need to be removed before you can start cooking with them, and de-sliming an octopus is one of the nastier, messier tasks an angler has to do in the kitchen. I use salt, though others use sake, and rub the octopi until the slime is removed – I needed 1kg salt for two creatures that were about 1.5kg each. Hand-line fishing usually means, if you are white collar worker, cutting your hands with the line at least once, and the salt and slime mixture make cleaning octopus a surprisingly painful experience. Fortunately I had only cut myself once and dulled the more urgent pain with a couple of Yebisu beers.
Once the octopus is de-slimed, the traditional treatment is to boil the creature till its legs curl up. There are a number of tricks to make sure the octopus flesh doesn’t become too tough and rubbery and I use the Japanese fisherman’s trick of boiling in houjicha tea. Once it has cooled, the octopus can be eaten as sashimi, or cooked in a variety of ways.
Raw octopus spared from the boiling is the starting point for a number of other dishes: takomeshi, which is an all-in-one rice dish where chunks of the octopus are cooked together with the rice with ginger and slices of abura-age (fried tofu) and seasoned with a little soy sauce. It needs little else and after combining all the ingredients, requires you to just press a button on the rice cooker and wait, so is simplicity itself.
Raw octopus legs, or the very ends of the legs that are too small to used any other way, are chopped up and tossed with mirin (sweetened cooking sake) and a hefty dose of freshly grated wasabi to make the infamous side-dish tako-wasabi. After a night of steeping in the fridge it tastes even better.
A family favourite octopus dish in my house is tako-yaki, a strange and tasty food made by grilling little pieces of boiled octopus wrapped in a light flour dough. Usually this is a take-out fast food dish or something you buy at a street-food stall called yatai, but we have our own electric tabletop tako-yaki grill, sparing the effort of going out to buy it and coming out by far much tastier and better. When the little balls are done they are doused in brown sauce and mayonnaise and nori seaweed and katsuobushi flakes, before being sent down with a swig of beer.
The tako-yaki ready to eat:
However, the crowning glory of the day’s fishing was something not related to octopus, but in fact my going-home present from Captain Yutaka: Japanese salmon ikura eggs cured in miso, to a recipe of his own invention, eaten as-is with a spoon. The exact method of making them is apparently a highly guarded secret, but they are very, very good; but since you will not be able to buy or order such a thing anywhere in Japan, you will just have to take my word for it. Anyway, there is still plenty of delicious octopus leftover in my fridge and I have a number of other dishes in the making, but they are for another post. Thanks as always to Captain Yutaka, sailing from Nakaminato, for another great day’s fishing!