Monday photos: Sanma (pacific saury) is the quintessential fall fish


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.

Recipe: Sanma no shioyaki (salt-grilled pacific saury) made in the oven

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).

What's a homey, humble, everyday food or dish for you?

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?

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For me, the most homey, comforting taste is salted rice. Being of Indonesian descent, we had rice at dinner almost every day. I used to end each meal with a bowl of rice with some salt sprinkled on. I was pleasantly surprised when i visited Japan earlier this year and found out that the rice served everywhere (!) tasted exactly like home to me (^_^)

Beans on toast, or maybe Heinz chicken soup, as my mum wasn't the sort that knew how to cook. Strange what forms comfort-food can take.

For me it's grilled brisket. We'd have it every other Friday (payday) and it was AMAZING!!

Homey and humble? Pasta with red sauce, sausage, and salad. Maybe garlic bread. Mmmm. Had it about once a week growing up.

Maki-san, konnnichiwa!! This is my first time to comment, but I have been reading your blogs for the last few weeks.
I am glad you reminded me about Sanma! In fact, I am going home (Japan) tomorrow and have been listing what I want to eat while I am there. It was four years ago when I went back to Japan, so needless to say I have a long list. I love broiled Sanma with daikon oroshi! Cannot wait!

Good luck with your treatment! My mom had a breast cancer surgery a few months ago and finally I get to see her. Take care!!

Here it would be a pâté chinois.

A dish in tiers ,leveled .(Well, they stack on each english is failing me at the moment.)

First tier is cooked and drained lean ground meat (usually beef, pork is more salty) then cream corn (or a macedoine of vegetables if you want to do a "campagne" version) and then mashed potatoes. Put a bit on butter on it and then grill it for a few, just so the potatoes got a little change in color. So tasty. I don't do it too often though, because my boyfriend could eat a whole lasagna plate of it by himself!

Hi fellow Quebequoise ;)
In english it's called a Shepherd's Pie!
It was my comfort food too growing up :)

For me, it would be semolina pudding (Grießbrei). Nothing but milk, semolina, some sugar (some real vanilla if you're feeling fancy), accompanied by some cherries or just with cinnamon and sugar on top. ... Now I'm getting hungry.

Thanks for the all the background info Maki-san. I love posts like this. I understand better why many of the japanese customers who didn't have ramen seemed to have chosen this dish among the "chief's recommendations" at the izakaya I went to for lunch today (the season really turned just this week-end, everyone was looking for comfort food today!). I didn't know it was a really typical autumn dish (this style of japanese restaurants with dishes like this are quite new here).

I never had saury before today, it's not a fish you see at our fish markets except from time to time frozen at the japanese grocery (unlike sardines and the local mackerel that's really great, and very cheap, but that most Québécois avoid - way too fishy! That's one of the most unpopular choices at sushi bars here too).

The sanma was good, both crispy and juicy/fat and reminded me of mackerel but not as tasty.

There were only a few minor differences in the way they served the dish (and here it wasn't one of their cheaper choices for lunch, by the way). It came with grated daikon, but momoji and decorated with yellow petals (chrysanthemum, I think). The grilled fish was topped with daikon sprouts, and placed on a leaf that looked like a kind of very finely ramified chrysanthemum (not the kind of large leafed shungiku I grow myself, but the taste was similar). Fresh yuzu is prohibitive, so they rather served this with ponzu.

Asparagus rolled in bacon, sweet simmered squash, tempura of julienned carrot and gobo were the recommended small dishes.

The other dishes they had on the daily menu were udon with chicken curry, mackerel stew (or poached, the french and english versions of their daily menu are a bit approximative) with a yuzu miso sauce, and another grilled fish called hokke (or hoke?) I never heard of, but beside being butterflied they seemed to serve much the same way as the salt-grilled saury.

My homey/cheap/humble food is not really typical (my diet is too asian-influenced, so I'd say stuff like donburi - at home - or pho - in restaurants - are typical simple and cheap comfort food to me, and I also make a lot of salt-grilled or miso-grilled or stewed (nabemono) salmon in autumn - it's relatively cheap here) but for western dishes I make I would say soups. I make a lot hearty soups in autumn, served with grilled bread and cheese as a one-dish meal. Grilled autumn veggies (with grilled or poached meat, usually chicken) is another, which a lot of people around me also love to have in autumn, and dishes with apples (usually desserts, but dishes like a pork fillet roasted with apples show up a lot in my family). "Pâté chinois" as someone mentionned would be more typical of our homey comfort food (just not for me, as I can't abide creamed corn). Cabbage rolls in another humble dish that is often seen in autumn. Meatloaf too. By and large, people around here return to warming oven-baked or stewed dishes by late october (which ones in each family vary massively nowadays, though). Lots of soups too.

Being of greek decent, some of my favourite humble dishes are made by my grandmother..... peas, broadbeans and atrtichokes in a tomato sauce cooked like a casserole, spinach fried in a pan with live oil and lemon, and cheese filled pastries. Staple foods that go with any meal, or on their own. Traditionally in greece, being a poor country - meats were only eaten on special occasions, so the amount of vegetable based and staple like meals that have come out of our culture are absolutely amazing! My taste buds and tummy are very lucky!

The fish sounds sanma sounds amazing - i eat a lot of fish - but have never prepared it like this before!!!!! Something new to try - I will have to see if my local japanese store perhaps stocks it frozen!!

After moving to Japan just a few weeks ago this website has been an amazing help with getting to really know proper Japanese cooking and ingredients - THANK YOU!

I've grilled Sanma a couple times yet and I'm wondering how you prepare the fish as I've seen it both cleaned, and whole in recipes. What's the big difference with grilling it completely hole and grilling it with all the ... goodies on the inside left in?

At around 250¥ for a pair of fish here in Nagoya - I plan on making a meal of these as often as possible! :)

Basically, the innards are removed if you just want the flavor of the fish, but when the fish is grilled the guts are usually left in since many people like the bitter contrast. (I've added those details to the article). It should be said that the guts are usually removed from other fish, especially other 'blue' fish like mackerel. Fish with the innards intact tend to go bad a lot faster.

A humble dish? Macaroni and cheese is the first thing that comes to mind!

I see saury a lot in the fish markets here in Sydney - I should try this!

a humble food, i thought of pancakes immediatly, they are cheap to make and your kids will think they are getting a treat by having a breakfast food for dinner when the truth is you can't afford a traditional hunk-of-meat for dinner.

I lived in thailand when I was little, and my nanny would make me macaroni noodles with scrambled eggs and ketchup. Baby's version of pad thai I guess. Everyone gets grossed out by it, but it's still my ultimate comfort food!

Thanks for the recipe! I never knew what Sanma was called in English, and I've been craving some good fish for a while!

For me a meal that always remind me of family/home is a simple pot roast with potatoes, rutabaga, celery, onion, carrot, and meat. Served with either steamed rice or bread/rolls.

For me it would be a cheese crisp (quesadilla) with a load of Pico de Gallo or a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup.

A fried egg on toast with peanut butter. Simple, cheap, and lots of protein so it can serve as a main dish without me being hungry again in an hour.

Here in Hawaii, a humble, homey dish would be nitsuke (shoyu sauce stew) made with any type of fish, but especially the bones of the ahi tuna fish, which are sold here in styrofoam packs for very cheap. We also put in menpachi or other bony type of reef fish that isn't found in markets, but is caught by one's own hand :). It's a dish that you would never serve to guests, but only to one's family.
Or chicken nishime. Or perhaps fried spam and portugese sausage over hot rice, or tamago gohan. Fried akule is a fish that is similar to sanma, as it is cheap here and a very fishy fish, and also horribly bony, but delicious if you grew up eating it :)

As a kid, my favorite meal was pork chops with macaroni and cheese and apple sauce. I always liked the combination of salty/sweet/creamy.

Mashed potatoes are a very homey dish too. I think everyone has their own way to make them and wherever I go, I find I react strongly to how they're prepared (too salty/buttery/chunky/smooth/watery/etc.) Much like rice, you can enhance or ruin mashed potatoes depending on what you add to them.

Poulet rôti & pommes duchesse!

For me, I think homemade challah is a quintessential homey thing. I grew up having shabbat dinner every Friday with homemade challah, which is better and cheaper than the store-bought stuff could ever hope to be.

For me it is my mum's chicken+vegetable soup. It's really cheap, tasty and I love it. My mum used to make it for me my whole childhood and even now when I come home we have it.

Everything prepared the same manner as the sanma, until the grilling moment. I steam the fish and instead of rice, I eat it with porridge, and a sauce of ginger and salted beans. Teochew food :)

My homey and humble food is definitely hamburgers (Frikadels), especially the ones my mom makes. They're not made to still be soft but very firm and fried to a pretty dark color. They keep for a few days in the fridge and taste simply wonderful on a piece of dark walnut bread. I can live for days on a stash of mom's hamburgers.

Homey and humble? Probably the most homey and humble thing for me is rice with peas and scrambled eggs (and some kind of sauce if its there) all mixed together... Its something I would never, ever, ever think to feed to anyone else but is something I ate frequently growing up, it was even served for breakfast at one of my schools - well indirectly, they did rice with peas, scrambled eggs on the side. :) Other than that I'd have to say bean/cheese burritos or (my sick food) rice with kimchii and miso soup.

The most comforting thing I can think of, in regards to food, is the biscuit, because my mother's family grew up on a steady diet of homemade biscuits. Yum. Copious amounts provided by my grandmother every week, with raw dough for snacks while they baked.

But when I think of home home, my thoughts turn to two dishes. The first is vegetable beef soup, the only item my father ever cooked. Think of an enormous pot filled with enough soup to last a month, at least. Good thing our garage is always colder than the fridge in January, because it's the only place we can store it. A lot of different flavors, with chuck and barley, and my mother and I always have to salt our bowls, since my father will not put salt in the soup. The other is the gumbo inspired okra and tomato dish that came from my grandmother. Onions fried in some oil, with a large can of tomatoes, frozen okra, then thickened with a bit of flour. Absolutely delicious.

The strange thing is that I really did not like either of these when I was growing up; both were among the very few dishes that I was able to avoid as a kid. But now, I enjoy both of them, and they both remind me of being a kid. And I'll never be able to eat them without remembering all the effort that went into canning those tomatoes and green beans, and freezing the okra.

The parallel of sanma in France, would definitely be maquerel ! And the way of cooking it wld be either with mustard or l'escabeche (herbs and white wine). Thanks for this great presentation of a fish that I see now everyday but that I knew nothing of !

My comfort food from my child hood is very humble indeed. It is just boiled potatoes with butter and salt. I love it! Still :o))

My question for you, Maki-san, is though how do you eat the fish with everything still inside? I am from a landlocked country (Austria) and we didn't have fish that way ever. Also, what to do with the bones? Isn't fish like this difficult to eat? I cook japanese food very often and would love to include fish that is grilled this way in my cooking repertoire, however, before I try I would like to know what to do with it after ;o)

Thank you much!!

I have to say I found grilled saury quite laborous to eat. It's got a dense network of hair-thin, flexible, resilient bones extending everywhere from the spine. They detach as you tear the meat off, and stay inside. Pulling them out slows you down considerably. There isn't too much meat on a single saury, but you also find you're not making much progress, made all the more tantalizing by how tasty it is.

Apologize deeply, I didn't read through the entire article before posting- I realize that salt grilled is the basal suggestion.

Growing up, my French-Canadian grandmother did most of the cooking in our house. For simple comfort food, it would be a toss-up between chicken and dumplings, and pied au cochon, both unctuous, gravy-laden, full of umami.

This post, BTW, inspired me to try Pacific saury, sprinkled with coarse salt and broiled. I like it, but then, I like the oily "bluefish" variety of fish. My husband let me finish his, though; it's not for everyone.

I'm eating this out of a can right now, my parents stocked up ahead of Sandy.