The kanji characters for sanma, the Japanese name for the pacific saury, are 秋刀魚 - “fall sword fish”. A perfect fit, since the fish do look like small silver swords or knives, and fall is the peak season for them.
For a long time, sanma was regarded as an inexpensive, everyday fish, eaten in the lean days before payday. The very last movie directed by the great Yasujiro Ozu , best known in the west for his movie Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari), is called Sanma no aji - The Taste of Sanma (English title: An Autumn Afternoon ). Sanma was, especially in the early 1960s when the movie was made, a homey, humble, everyday thing to eat - a symbol of ordinary family life. Nowadays all fish including sanma is getting pricier, but sanma is still one of Japan’s favorite fish. Whole grilled sanma (the way it’s most often eaten) also has a slight bitter flavor from the guts, which are usually not removed before cooking - many people like the bitterness - which is a reference to the bittersweet nature of the movie.
Sanma has the oily, rich taste that is characteristic of ‘blue’ fish such as mackerel, herring and bluefish. But compared to these, especially bluefish, it has a much lighter taste. Sanma digest their food a lot faster than most fish - it takes only half an hour or so for food to pass through its system - so the fish has less of a chance to pick up any off-putting odors or tastes. As the weather gets cold, sanma, like other cold-water fish, put on a lot of fat, which is what makes it particularly tasty right now. Fish oil is said to be very good for you, containing omega-3s and the like. Plus, sanma is considered to be a sustainable fish that has not been overfished as of yet.
Really fresh sanma can be made into sushi neta or sashimi, but the best way to cook it in my opinion is to simply grill it with a little bit of salt sprinkled on. This is called sanma no shioyaki (shioyaki means salt-grilled).
The easiest way for anyone to make sanma no shioyaki these days is with the grill of an oven. You may want to try the picturesque method of grilling on a traditional wire fish grill, but this can make your kitchen very smoky. (In the olden days, fish were only grilled outdoors, on little hibachi.) The best accompaniment to grilled sanma in my mind is daikon oroshi, grated daikon radish with a drizzle of soy sauce, but you can us a squeeze of citrus if you prefer.
Allow for 1 whole sanma per person. As I mentioned above, sanma cooked in this way is usually not gutted, so be sure you obtain very fresh fish.
Heat up your oven’s grill. Line your grill pan with aluminum foil, and brush lightly with some oil (this prevents any sticking).
Sprinkle both sides of the fish with salt, lightly. Leave the fish for at least 10 minutes, then pat off any moisture that comes to the surface with paper towels.
Put the fish on the foil. Grill until the surface is a little bit blistered and starting to blacken in spots - don’t let it get completely black. This should take about 8 minutes, depending on the strength of your grill. Carefully turn over the fish, and cook on the other side for another 5 minutes (peek as it’s cooking to make sure it doesn’t burn).
Serve with a mound of finely grated daikon radish and a drizzle of soy sauce, or alternatively a wedge of lemon, lime, or other citrus (in Japan you’d use yuzu, kaposu or daidai).
Let’s play a little game ^_^. As I mentioned above, director Yasujiro Ozu used sanma as a typical homey, familier, humble (cheap) dish. What food or dish might you use instead to mean the same thing?