Grilled Snapper is often served on special occasions in Japan. Grilling is the simplest way of cooking a whole fish in Japanese cuisine. Sprinkle salt over the fish and grill the whole fish on the BBQ, grill pan or broiler.
You may not be accustomed to eating a grilled fish with bones and head intact but this is the best way to preserve the flavour and juiciness of the flesh.
I know that some readers might be put off by the eyes of the fish, and in other cuisines the eyes are often covered with a slice of lemon when a whole fish is served. But in Japan, the whole fish is considered to be an extravagant way of eating fish.
When a grilled whole fish is served, people say okashiratsuki (尾頭付き) meaning a fish with head and tail, implying ‘perfection’. And they feel like having a special treat, particularly when it is a white meat fish and a bit pricey fish like snapper.
This method of grilling is also called sugatayaki (姿焼き), which means grilling fish, squid or prawn retaining its original form.
You can grill other whole fish such as sea bass, bream, and yellowtail/horse mackerel. But in the case of a whole snapper, it is often served in celebrations including New Year’s Day.
Why Snapper for Celebrations?
Snapper is called tai (鯛) in Japanese. On the other hand, people say medetai (めでたい) when a happy event takes place or calls for a celebration. And they linked the common sound ‘tai’ to associate snapper with celebrations.
This is yet again a play on words like the association between nandina (sacred bamboo) and Rice with Azuki Beans (Osekihan) that I noted in that post.
The colour of snapper is also a reason for using the fish for happy occasions. In Japanese culture, the colour red is considered to be a happy/festive colour. During the summer festivals, at Japanese-style wedding ceremonies, or even at school sports carnivals, they hang up a red & white striped curtain all around the walls. You can see the examples of red & white curtains here.
Snapper’s skin is pinkish and not exactly red, but they see it as red.
Techniques to make Grilled Snapper for a special occasion
Noting is wrong with just sprinkling some salt over the whole fish and grilling it on a BBQ or another grilling tool. But for a special occasion, there are a few techniques applied to the fish before grilling so that the grilled fish looks prettier.
- Poke the skin randomly on both side of the body. This will prevent the skin from breaking when grilled.
- Bend the fish to make the head and tail point upward. Put two skewers (preferably metal) through from the tail to the base of the head so that the tail lifts up as if it is still alive.
- Decorate the fins with salt. Put a lot of salt over every fin of the fish. When the fish is grilled, the excess salt on the fins crystalises. The excess salt not only makes the fins white but also spreads each fin like a fan, instead of collapsing. This salting method is called keshōjio (化粧塩), meaning salt makeup.
When I grill a whole fish, I usually make a couple of diagonal incisions in the middle of the body where the meat is thickest (as you can see in the photos above). In Japan, a whole fish must be served with the head facing to the left. I do it only on the left side of the body so that the incision will be visible when served.
This incision technique is not supposed to be used when serving sugatayaki on special occasions because the grilled skin without being broken looks neater. But I like to do it to give an additional decoration when I serve a whole grilled snapper at home. If you make the incisions, then you don’t need to poke the skin.
Once you have performed the above preparations, you are now ready to grill.
Best Way to Grill A Whole Snapper
To maintain the bent body shape and let the two incisions cook nicely, it is strongly recommended to cook the fish over the heat without touching the fish on the hot BBQ plate or grilling pan.
It is a fundamental Japanese cooking technique to grill fish with a strong heat but elevated away from it – about 10-15cm/4-6″apart. The thicker the fish is the farther away from the heat it should be.
I often cook a fish on BBQ grill (not a flat hotplate) with two bricks or baking tins on each side of the grill. Since two skewers are put through the fish, I can place the end of skewers on the bricks to position the fish away from the heat and without touching the BBQ grill.
Firstly, cook the side that will be up when plated. In the case of the BBQ, this means that the side which shows the metal skewers on the body will be up to start with. After 5-6 minutes of cooking one side of the fish, turn the fish over and cook the other side for about 4 minutes.
The cooked snapper should have adequate salt flavour but if you like a strong saltiness, you may sprinkle a bit of salt or even pour some soy sauce over to eat it.
It’s a bit of extra work to make a whole fish look pretty but on special occasions or if you feel like showing off, you may want to try it.
P.S. Don’t forget to see the section ‘MEAL IDEAS’ below the recipe card! It gives you a list of dishes that I have already posted and the new recipe in this post that can make up a complete meal. I hope it is of help to you.
Grilled whole fish sprinkled with salt is the simplest way of cooking whole fish in Japanese cuisine. The skewers hold the fish in position to keep the head and tail slightly curved up while cooking, so that it looks as though the fish is 'alive'. This is the signature Japanese way of cooking whole fish.
This recipe is quite long but it contains three different ways of grilling whole fish. Please also see the notes for omitting steps for day-to-day cooking.
- 500g/1.1lb g whole snapper , head and tail intact, cleaned (note 1)
- ½ tbsp salt for flavour
- 1-1½ tbsp salt (or possibly more) to decorate fins
- Two long skewers (note 2)
- Lemon wedges
Pat dry the fish and sprinkle ½ tablespoon of salt over both sides of the fish. Leave it for 1 hour to allow the salt to penetrate the flesh.
Make a couple of diagonal incisions in the middle of the left side of the body where the meat is thickest (note 3).
Hold the fish on your left hand (for right handers) with the tail on the right and the belly away from you.
Put the first skewer through starting from the flesh close to the tail below the back bone. Push the skewer towards the other side past the back bone, almost at a vertical angle.
Before the skewer gets through to the other side of the fish, lift up the tip of the skewer to change the direction so that the skewer will come out the same side at about a quarter of the way along the fish. It is easier if you bend the fish with the left hand when changing the skewer direction.
Push the skewer in again at the midpoint of the whole body below the back bone in the same way as the first threading. But this time, aim to come out just below the eye.
The second skewer is put though in the same way, but the skewer runs above the back bone and comes out between the body and the head where the bones are very hard.
You will have the tail-end of the skewers close each other and the head-end of the skewers far apart.
Place the skewered fish on a cutting board, scored side up. Pull the front end of the dorsal fin and spread the fin.
Take a generous amount of salt with the other hand and put quite a lot of salt across the fin. Once salt is applied, the fin should stay spread more easily. Apply salt a couple of times.
For the other side of the dorsal fin, take a good amount of salt on your fingertips and press the salt up to the fin to coat it with salt.
Coat the tail fin and all other fins including pectoral fins with salt using the same method.
You don’t need to salt the right side of the pectoral fin as the right side of the fish will not be facing up.
The fish should be cooked on high heat but about 15cm away from the heat. Use a grill plate with slits so that the heat from the flame is more direct.
Place two bricks (or something stable and inflammable) wrapped in foil on both sides of the BBQ plate so that the distance between the heat and the fish is about 15cm.
Place both ends of the skewers on the bricks (or equivalent), facing the left side of the fish to the heat.
Cook about 5-6 minutes or until the surface of the fish shows burnt patches and the inside of the incisions are cooked through (note 6).
(Optional) As the fish gets cooked, the pectoral fin starts lifting up (possibly up to 45 degrees away from the body) causing the fin to burn as the tip of the fin gets too close to the heat. You can wrap the tip of the fin with a piece of aluminium foil if you want (but this is a bit fiddly and I usually let it burn without wrapping).
Turn it over and cook further 4 minutes then remove from the heat.
Place the fish on a clean cutting board facing the left side of the fish with the incisions up. While the fish is still hot, turn each skewer, then remove it from the fish.
Gently transfer the fish to a serving plate.
The fish should be cooked on high heat but position it about 10cm away from the heat above the fish.
Turn the broiler heat to max.
Prepare a large tray with the width slightly smaller than the length of the skewers and 5cm deep minimum.
Secure both ends of the skewers on the edge of the tray so that the fish does not touch the bottom of the tray. Scored side should be facing the heat above the fish.
Place the tray with the fish under the broiler with the distance about 10cm below the heat (note 7).
Follow step 5 onwards in the instructions for Grilling on BBQ.
Pre-heat the oven to 220C.
Cut aluminium foil to 60cm in length and scrunch it gently, then spread it over a baking tray that can fit the skewered fish.
Place the fish facing the left side of the fish with the incisions up.
Cook for 20 minutes (note 6).
Follow the step 7 onwards in the instructions for Grilling on BBQ.
1. My snapper was about 35cm long. You can grill a smaller or larger snapper. In the case of a larger snapper, you need to have very long skewers and a wide griller to be able to cook the whole fish at once.
2. I used stainless thin round skewers. They were 40cm long. They can be flat skewers as long as they are a very narrow width. If the skewers are very thick like those that you make koftas with, it might be a bit hard to put the skewers through the fish.
Bamboo skewers are not suitable as they will burn even if they are soaked in water before using them.
3. You can skip this step. The formal way of making grilled whole fish for special occasions is not to make incisions. But then you need to poke the surface of the both sides of fish randomly using the tip of a skewer. This prevents the skin from breaking when grilled.
4. If you are cooking a whole fish for dinner, you don't need to make the body of the fish too curved. You can simply put two skewers through on the right side of the body below and above the back bone.
5. If you are cooking a whole fish for dinner, you don't need decorate the fins. You can skip this section entirely.
6. Depending on the size of the fish the cooking time varies.
7. The combination of my oven shelves and the height of the baking tray was not a distance of 10cm (it was 15cm actually) from the heat. So, I placed a thin tray upside down between the shelf and the baking tray to lift the fish up.
8. Since the right side of the fish is attached to the bottom of the tray, you may omit applying salt decoration to the pectoral fin on this side.