on the Yutaka-maru, fun as always! Click through to read the full story.
All fishing trips on the Yutaka-maru start of course with a fun train ride to Nakaminato, followed by an evening meal of some great proportions. The train as always was on time, and I was greeted by the same old chap playing guitar in the station waiting room, and the same dark-eyed young person who solicitously opened the door a bit wider for me – for my extra luggage, I am sure – and after a brisk walk from the station I had met up with Captain Yutaka, deposited my gear in his hut and we were soon bending our steps toward an izakaya for our evening’s amusements. The captain happened to bring along a giant hirame in a plastic bag, that he had caught that day (in this part of Japan, by sun-down it is cold enough outside to not need to put the fish in icewater) which would comprise the greater part of our meal in the evening. In addition to the hirame sashimi, made there and then and so possibly the best you could ever eat in the world, a wide variety of other dishes were consumed but proceedings were dominated by fin-sake, or the cured and dried fins of a hirame are grilled over a fire, stuck into a mug and covered in boiling-hot sake.
It is pretty potent stuff and by our third or fourth mug our faces had grown cherry-red and our conversation became a little wild and free: the captain spoke of the “one-in-a-hundred” hirame, the medical benefits of trepanning and some other subjects that almost certainly impinged upon the borders of veracity, whilst I for one simply found everything, even very mundane statements like “I am going to the toilet”, absolutely hilarious and could not stop laughing. To help us recover from the exhilarating effects of the hot sake, Captain Yutaka then produced a plastic carboy of Japanese whiskey with a conspiratorial look. It was not quite the worst variety of Japanese whiskey (the best varieties, such as certain aged Yamazakis, easily hold their own against (and sometimes surpass, in competition) the top whiskies out of Islay or elsewhere) but pretty close to it; I made sure to put plenty of ice and water in mine to make a fairly repellent drink and fortunately we paid up and left the restaurant after drinking only a few of them. After returning home, we drank a few more beers to see out the few snacks we had lying about, and my last memory before going to bed was of the captain pressing me to eat a pack of Neapolitan-flavour astronaut’s dehydrated ice cream. I can’t even remember if I brushed my teeth or not that night.
The wisdom of the ancients, or at least the drunks of history, states that one should never mix grape with grain – wine with spirits or beer – but the jury seems still out for grain with rice. We both woke up at 4am and by 5am under a star-filled sky the Yutaka-maru was cast off, shoved off and under way down-river, with five other anglers aboard for the day and our heads cleared perhaps by the sub-zero air temperature and the prospect of catching some delicious hirame. We reached the first fishing point at twilight, baited our hooks and let go our tackle. I have described the fishing method for hirame at length in previous posts so I won’t repeat myself, other than it is a wait-and-see style that leaves the angler a lot of spare time. I passed this time by drinking a couple of Yebisu beers and eating several Japanese fish sausages, and occasionally wiping my streaming nose; it was well below freezing, even after sunrise, and a touch of westerly wind gave the cold a real bite. As soon as the sun peeped out from behind the immense cloudbank offshore I hooked my first hirame. Unfortunately, so had the angler next to me, and as we finally got our tackles onboard it turned out there was only one fish: that had swallowed both our baits and hooks! I have never encountered such an absurd thing in ten years of this kind of fishing! If you look carefully in the picture you can just about make out the second leader going into the lefthand corner of the fish’s mouth (it all ended amicably of course, as I have described in the previous post).
Anyway, as the day progressed it turned out that after the bite of dawn, where five or six hirame were boated, the fish seemed to stop giving sport and we were facing a long day of fishing ahead. The sun came out and warmed us up a bit, the night’s land breeze died out and sea flattened out into a dead calm. It was most pleasant, especially with a piping-hot dish of Japanese curry that Captain Yutaka made below and brought on deck and served us, and the occasional bite of a fish to keep us at least moderately interested in the fishing. It was one of these opportunist takes that I managed to snag my first genuine hirame of the day, which despite not being particularly large put up an immense fight before being landed (photo courtesy of Captain Yutaka).
Well this catch proved to be my last for the day, but with the pair of hirame in my cool-box there would be plenty to eat for the next few days. The larger of the two could barely fit in my cool box! My return to Tokyo by train was uneventful and swift, and by 4pm I was in a hot bath at home and contemplating what to eat the first night. Hirame generally is considered better eating as sashimi on the second or third day, so I went for breadcrumbed fish, followed by the somewhat more traditional Japanese dish takikomi gohan, where pieces of the fish and a variety of vegetables are cooked with rice in a stock made from the fish’s bones. Any breaded and fried dish in my household is always served, by popular demand, with my secret recipe tartare sauce; or at least what English people call tartare sauce that bears no relevance to anything French, but what is usually served in the UK with certain kinds of fried seafood such as scampi. Filletting hirame is no great matter, much easier than other large-ish game, and the two fish were completely taken apart, the fillets ready to use and bones in a pot to make stock, in about an hour.
The fried hirame came out very well, with a large mound of shredded cabbage, slices of lemon and of course lashings of homemade tartare sauce on the side.
Like all proper deep-fried food should be, the parcels of hirame are not greasy or overloaded with oil; the breadcrumb coat should be nice and thin and just provide a sealed envelope in which the fish cooks in its own juices. Being very lightly seasoned (just a light sprinkle of salt, and nothing in the breadcrumb coat) these do of course need the tartare sauce on top!
Whilst the fish was frying I also set the rice to cook in a claypot on the stove. I added some extra flavour to the hirame stock with some katsuobushi (dried tuna flakes) and konbu (kelp) and seasoned it with sake, mirin and soy sauce. There are no strict rules as to what you can put into such a dish, so I chopped some random vegetables and pieces of atsu-age (fried tofu) as we had in our fridge.
The rice is measured out and washed, and then placed in the claypot and the vegetables laid on top. The fish fillets, cut into suitable chunks, are very quickly browned on both sides in a pan before being laid onto the top of everything and the stock poured in afterwards.
When done in a big claypot like this the rice is cooked very quickly, in about 25 minutes. Oddly enough, the fried hirame was long consumed before the rice was ready, but after some several more canned chuhai the moment came to take the lid off the pot – always a moment of tension as the rice may be under- or over-cooked and the dish a disaster!
After a moment’s anxiety it turned out the rice was cooked perfectly, and all that was required was for a busy hand to mash everything together in the pot with a ladle to complete the dish for eating.
The claypot retains its heat remarkably, and hot second and third helpings were shamelessly consumed; some leftovers were shaped into o-nigiri for the next day. Lucky diners get scrapings from the bottom of the pot, known in Japanese as o-koge (honourable burnings) which are crispy-brown and quite delicious, similar to the crispy rice parts of a well-cooked paella.
The perfect end to a hirame supper. The early start to the day, the efforts of the day’s fishing and perhaps the numerous chuhai consumed meant soon after the rice course it was time for bed, with no energy left for spirituous liquors or singing songs. Once in bed, I fell asleep very quickly. Many thanks as always to Captain Yutaka and the Yutaka-maru, sailing from Nakaminato, Ibaraki prefecture!