Thursday, April 12th, 2012 | posted by mike
I have written about the arrival of fresh lake smelt at the market and I mentioned that in my opinion there was only one proper way of preparing them- fried! Well, that’s still my favorite but I had forgotten about the delicious fried and pickled escabeche dishes that we have made with smelt over the years. I was going to share a nice Spanish style escabeche or Jamaican escoveitch recipe for you but then I switched gears and started wondering what the Japanese, in all their fish wisdom, might do with these sweet little fish. Our Japanese customers buy our local fresh smelt because they are similar to their wakasagi back home. They prepare them in a similar style to ours, maybe more often tempura style, but in my search, I actually found Japanese escabeche!
16th century Japan had quite a fine cuisine based on lots of fish and shellfish. When the Portuguese and other European explorers and traders began to appear they brought their style of cooking with them: pickling fish, meat and vegatables called escabeche. This was new to the Japanese and they called this style Nanbanzuke, which translates to “southern barbarian pickle”, referring to these strange looking newcomers and their delicious style of preserving food.
The Japanese added their own touch with familiar ingredients like soy sauce, rice vinegar and dashi (a stock made with kombu seaweed and dried bonito flakes). Dashi, by the way, was the first food to be identified as “umami” the meaty, savory ” fifth taste” that is the often hard to describe flavor that brings that overall balance to dishes that makes them delicious.
I’ve always loved all the flavors and textures of escabeche: sweet, sour, spicy, tangy, crunchy, salty, absolutely one of the best finger foods out there! This Japanese style version not only brings umami to the plate but the carrots, scallions and daikon radish add a real nice component. This dish is said to get better as it marinates but I prefer it freshly made and served. We couldn’t wait last night and served it warm. Fantastic!