Sakamushi (酒蒸し, steamed in sake) Fish is a very authentic Japanese dish and sometimes served in kaiseki-ryori (multi-course haute cuisine). In a nutshell: White-fleshed fish is steamed with plenty of sake (酒, Japanese rice wine). This is a very simple method of cooking fish but the flavour of fish is amazing. It will make you feel like you are having a dish at a high-class restaurant!
When fish or meat is steamed with sake (酒, Japanese rice wine), it is called sakamushi (酒蒸し). The first kanji character reads “sake” but when followed by another word, in this case “mushi” (蒸し), the sound sometimes changes to “saka”. The word “mushi” (蒸し) is the noun form of “musu” (蒸す) which means steam.
The most popular sakamushi is “asari no sakamushi“ （アサリの酒蒸し) meaning sakamushi of asari (アサリ). Asari are Japanese clams or Japanese cockles. The letter “の” is equivalent to “of” in this context. If you Google the word “sakamushi” or “酒蒸し” , all sorts of asari no sakamushi recipes come up. Perhaps because it is the easiest to make and consumed in a rather casual manner, asari might be the most popular sakamushi made in Japanese households. It is also a popular menu item at izakaya (居酒屋, Japanese style tavern).
You could also cook other shellfish in the same way such as abalone, mussels, oysters and so on. In the case of sakamushi fish, you typically use non-oily white meat fish such as ocean perch/rockfish, snapper, cod, jewfish. Usually, fish fillets are used so that it is easier to eat but sometimes a whole fish or even a fish head is steamed in sake.
I used ocean perch/rockfish fillets today. It was quite small as each fillet weighed only 90g/3.2oz and I bought two fillets for 2 servings. It could be a main dish if you are serving in Japan as they tend to eat smaller amount of protein. But in the Western world, this would just be a starter, maybe. In the case of kaiseki-ryori (multi-course haute cuisine), the serving size will be even smaller as kaiseki-ryori course is made up of so many different dishes in small portions. When I accumulate enough recipes in this blog, I am hoping that I will be able to talk more about kaiseki-ryori with a course menu.
Sakamushi is so simple that there aren’t many variations to it in terms of seasonings. In the case of fish sakamushi, all you need is fish (either fillets or whole), salt, sake and konbu (昆布, kelp). All you do is place konbu and fish on a plate, pour sake over it and steam it. Simple as that! But in my recipe, I have extra steps to give a little bit of professional touch.
- You cannot omit konbu as it gives umami (旨味) to the dish. I soaked konbu in sakefor 30 minutes before using it so that the umami from konbu comes out and mixes into the sake which will be poured over the fish.
- In Japanese cuisine, you don’t necessarily have to remove bones from the fish. But since this is an elegant looking dish, I removed small bones from the fillets. (But I missed one! Can you see it in the photo?)
- To evenly cook the fish fillets, I made slits on each fillet piece where the flesh is the thickest.
- When steaming, you sometimes get a white substance emerging especially around the slits. It is called albumin, ie. coagulated protein. Actually this is the same protein from egg whites. It is harmless but unappetising. To avoid this , I blanched the fillets first. This also removes fishy smell from the fillets.
- The ocean perch/rockcod has beautiful red skin so the dish would already be colourful by itself. But I added a small amount of broccolini and shimeji mushrooms to go with it by steaming them together.
None of the above steps are mandatory but if you have time, I recommend that you do. You can see the steps I went through to make this dish in the photos below.
In Japan steaming is always done on the cooktop using a large, deep steamer pot which is similar to Western style steamer pots. It consists of a couple of steaming compartments stacked on top of the pot which is filled with water.
I used to have a Japanese style steamer back in Japan but I did not bring it with me as I had to minimise the pots and pans to only those immediately required! Traditional Japanese steamer pots are brass colour and it is squarish with round corners, not round like the Western style steamer pots. But these days, the round style pots seem more readily available.
As I don’t have a steamer pot, I use a Chinese bamboo steamer whenever I need to steam food. I initially bought a couple of mid-size bamboo steamers to steam dumplings but then I realised that I needed a large steamer to steam a whole fish. So I bought two 30cm/11¾” bamboo steamers which were the largest I could get.
Then I got into trouble. I did not have a pot on which the 30cm/11¾” bamboo steamer could be placed to boil water. I had a large wok but it was 2-3 cm/1″ too small in diameter. Oops! So I had to buy a huge wok which can comfortably hold this large bamboo steamer. The diameter of the big wok is 35.5cm/14″! See the photo of the large wok in the photo above. On the day I bought this large work and brought it back home, my son looked at it, listened to why I bought it and shook his head with disbelief.
But I never regretted it. I can use this to deep fry a large quantity of food, I can make a large amount of fried rice, as well as of course steam a large amount of food. If you stack two bamboo steamers on top of one another, you can easily steam a family main meals at once. The bottom of this wok is also flat unlike the smaller one I have so it sits on the stove steadily without a wok stand, which is a bonus.
Steaming without a Steamer
If you don’t have a steamer, don’t worry. You can use a large pot with sufficient depth so that you have enough room to put water in and place a plate which is elevated to above the water level. There are a few methods of setting up a steamer using a normal pot:
- Place 3 ramekins of same height on the bottom of the pot, open side up. Then place the plate with food to be steamed on top. The ramekins should not be placed upside down even if it might look more stable because bubbling water will pop the ramekins and the plate will jump.
- Place a metal colander with no handles inside the pot and place a plate on. If the colander has handles, it will be difficult to balance a plate on it or fit inside the pot. Also you cannot have the colander handles hang on the rim of the pot either since you need to put a lid on.
- Make 3 balls with aluminium foil and place them on the bottom of the pot just like ramekin method above to prop the plate above the water. Make sure that the height of the balls are the same so it’s level.
With all these methods above, you need a bit of room between the side of the pot and the edge of the plate. Otherwise it is pretty hard to take the plate out when the steaming is finished. If you really can’t afford to have sufficient room around the plate, I would suggest that you use two cotton strings/twines and use them to lift the plate like this:
- Cut two cotton strings/twines to the length which is at least 2 times of the depth of the pot + diameter of the pot.
- Arrange strings at right angles and tie a knot at the intersection so that you can make a cross with the same length of the strings stretched from the centre.
- Place the plate in the middle of the crossed strings. Pick up the 4 ends of the strings to lift the plate and place it inside the pot.
- Leave the ends of the four strings hanging outside the rim of the pot but when lid is placed, the ends of the strings should be flipped over the lid so that they won’t catch fire by dangling into the burners.
The fish has a light salt flavour to it so if you prefer a lightly flavoured meal, you can eat it with no additional sauce at all. You can still taste the fish with sake and konbu. However, most people will find that the flavour of this fish is a bit too delicate/light so I would suggest that you eat it with a small amount of ponzu. Please refer to the recipe to make ponzu in Japanese Dressings.
You can buy ponzu from Japanese/Asian grocery stores but I would strongly recommend that you make it at home. Ponzu can keep for a long time in the fridge. The longer you keep it the better the flavour gets. I recently used my home made ponzu which was sitting in the fridge for a few months. Then I used the newly made ponzu few days later as I ran out of the old one. The difference in flavour was pronounced and I was quite surprised. You see, ponzu grows mellow with age just like some people!
- 2 ocean perch fillets, 90g each, skin on with small bones removed (Note 1)
- ½ tsp salt
- 4 pieces of 5cm/2" square konbu (kelp)
- 80ml/2.7oz sake (Japanese rice wine)
- 500ml/17oz hot water boiled to 95C/205F
- 500ml/17oz water
- 4 thin stems of broccolini, cut into half lengths
- 4 shimeji mushroom stems (Note 3)
- Ponzu (Note 4)
- Cut each fillet into two equal pieces. Make cross slits in each fillet where the flesh is the thickest.
- Sprinkle with the salt on both sides of the fillets and leave them for 1 hour.
- Combine sake and konbu sheets into a small bowl and leave for at least 30 minutes.
- Place the konbu sheets onto a plate which you will use in the steamer. Try not to overlap each konbu. Do not discard the sake.
- Place the fish fillets into a separate deep pan or a bowl. Gently pour the boiled water from the side of the bowl. The filets will start becoming white, ie. blanching. Imeediately after adding the boiled water, quickly add the cold water to reduce the temperature of the water in the bowl (to stop the cooking).
- Remove the fillets, removing scum from the blanching in the bowl. Pat dry the fillets with a paper towel. Place each fillet on a konbu sheet, without overlapping the fillets.
- Pour the sake over the fish ensuring that each fillet is covered with sake.
- Turn the steamer on high. Once water is boiling and steaming, place the plate of the fish on the steamer. Steam for 5 minutes, with a lid on. (Note 5)
- Add vegetables around the fish, place the lid back on and steam for a further 2 minutes.
- When done, remove the plate from the steamer. Place two cooked konbu sheets, then two fillet pieces onto a serving bowl or a plate. Arrange half of the broccolini and shimeji mushrooms on the side of the fish. Repeat the same for another serving.
- Pour sake juice left on the steaming plate over the fish (Note 6). Serve immediately with ponzu.
You could serve a larger portion of fish if you like.Just increase the amount of konbu and sake accordingly.
2. You could use other vegetables suitable for steaming. Beans, snow peas, shiitake mushrooms, asparagus might be good. The amount of vegetables can also vary but you need to think about the balance against the size of the fish fillet.
In my view, mushy vegetables such as potatoes, pumpkins are not best suited for this dish, nor vegetables with strong flavours such as capsicum.
Depending on the colour of the fish, you may want to change the choice of vegetables. For example, if you are steaming cod, you may add sliced carrots to add a bright colour to the dish. If you cut the carrots into flower shapes as explained in my post, Sanshoku Bento, it would look pretty.
3. If each stem is small, you may take a couple of stems together as one.
4. Please refer to the recipe to make ponzu in Japanese Dressings. I would strongly recommend that you make it at home. Ponzu can keep a long time in the fridge. The longer you keep it the better the flavour gets.
But if you wish, you can buy a bottle of ponzu from Japanese/Asian grocery stores.
5. The time taken to cook the fish fillets will depend on the strength of the steaming as well as the thickness of the fillet. My fish was about 1.5-2cm / ⅝"- ¾” thick and steam was on high.
6. The sake liquor from cooking contains tons of flavour with the konbu and fish so don’t discard. But you might find that you would only need half of what’s left on the steaming plate.