Mackerel fillets cooked in miso flavoured sauce – this is the best way of cooking mackerel. Simmered Mackerel in Miso is full of flavour and goes so well with rice.
Simmered Mackerel in Miso is called ‘saba no misoni’ (鯖の味噌煮). ‘Saba’ (鯖) means mackerel, ‘misoni’ (味噌煮) means simmered in miso, and ‘no’ (の) is equivalent to ‘of’. Dishes simmered in miso flavoured sauce are often called misoni when a very small amount of sauce is left at the end of cooking.
If, for example, chicken pieces and daikon pieces are cooked in miso flavoured sauce in the similar way, it will be called ‘toriniku to daikon no misoni’ meaning chicken and daikon misoni. So, you can practically invent any kind of misoni by cooking different combinations of ingredients.
Although they will all be called misoni, the method of preparing and cooking misoni varies depending on the ingredients. Simmered Mackerel in Miso particularly so because of delicate nature of the fish fillet.
Mackerel, which is also known as slimy mackerel, pacific mackerel, blue mackerel, Japanese mackerel, and spotted mackerel, has quite soft flesh with smooth skin as if there are no scales. The dorsal part of the skin is dark blue with a wavy or spotty pattern and the ventral side of the skin is shiny silver.
The meat is red and has a stronger fish smell compared to white meat fish. But despite the fish smell, I love mackerel. Actually, I like mackerel more than any other fish regardless of how it is cooked or not cooked. At a sushi shop in Japan, I always order a mackerel sushi. If I have a choice of various grilled fish dishes, I pick a grilled mackerel.
Mackerel caught in cold seas contains a good amount of fat in the flesh and nothing is more appetising than the grilled mackerel with so much oil coming out onto the surface of the fish. The fat is so tasty that you just need a sprinkle of salt on the fish to grill it. No complicated sauce is required.
Mackerel can be eaten raw if it is very fresh. It is said that mackerel does not stay fresh very long and that’s probably why cured mackerel called ‘shime saba’ (しめ鯖) became a rather popular way of serving it at even sushi shops. You can visit my post Shime Saba (Cured Mackrel) for a recipe if you are interested.
It is also good to deep fry and you can find deep fried mackerel marinated in vinegar sauce in my recipe Nanbanzuke (Marinated Fried Fish). Cooking mackerel in miso is an excellent way of eating mackerel, too.
Bone In or Out?
In Western cuisine, it is almost a ‘must’ to remove the bones off the fish fillet. But in Japan, you often find fish cooked with bones on including tiny bones. The simplest way of cooking fish in Japan is to sprinkle salt over the whole fish and grill, then the whole grilled fish is served on a plate. It is the diner’s responsibility to remove the bones as they eat the whole fish.
It is said in Japan that the chef can tell how much the diner loves fish by looking at how the diner left the bones on the plate. Fish lovers know how to remove flesh off the bone, where the tiny bones are and where the best meat is. They don’t chew a mouthful of fish and spit out bones with lots of chewed meat around them. They even pick tiny amounts of meat on the cheeks and around the eyes.
Even when the fish pieces are simmered, they often have bones in them. Simmered Mackerel in Miso is no exception and I usually fillet only one side of mackerel and leave the other side with the backbones intact. This is because fish pieces with the bones in are tastier (with the essence from the bones) and the meat does not curl up when cooked. It’s also faster to prepare.
If you are good at removing even small bones with your chopsticks or a knife and fork, I would suggest that you try to cook fish with the bone in. But if you decide to remove all the bones, you need to do a perfect job by running your fingers along where the backbone was and use tweezers to remove tiny bones.
Today, I removed all the bones off the fillets. It took time to prepare the fillets but the effort paid off when it came to eating the tasty dish.
Key to Removing Fishy Smell from Mackerel
Unlike curing mackerel in vinegar, cooking it in just miso flavoured sauce cannot remove the fishy smell of the mackerel. So, I do three things to eliminate fishiness as much as possible.
- Blanch fillets and clean the surface of the fillets – boil water in a pot and gently drop each fillet in it. As soon as the fillet turns to white, remove and cool it down quickly in iced water. Then clean the surface of each fillet in the iced water, removing small pieces of guts if there are any. Some recipes call for simply pouring boiling water over the fillets to sear the surface. But I find that it is fiddly as you need to turn the fillet over and the fillets are prone to break as they are quite fragile.
- Add a lot of ginger and shallots to the sauce – Ginger slices in particular help eliminate the fish smell.
- Add a lot of sake to the sauce – sake is a very effective seasoning to remove fishiness. In my recipe, 50% of the liquid to make a miso sauce is sake. That’s 200ml (6.8oz) for 4 servings.
Adding Miso at The End for the Best Results
Once mackerel fillets are blanched and cleaned, you add everything except the miso to a pot and cook. This will let the sake and sweetness penetrate into the fillets.
Miso needs to be added at the end so that the wonderful aroma of miso is not lost. If you cook for a long time with miso in it, the miso aroma disappears.
This method of adding miso at the end needs to be applied even when you make miso soup. Unless you are using fragile ingredients in miso soup such as tofu or ingredients requiring no cooking, e.g. dried wakame seaweed, you should add miso at the end after cooking all the ingredients. If you visit my post Miso Soup Basics and compare the two recipes there, you will see the different timings of adding miso to the soup.
Simmered Mackerel in Miso is a typical home cooking dish and considered to be a winter dish in Japan. This is because mackerel is best in winter with so much fat in the flesh. But in Australia, mackerel flesh does not contain much fat to my dismay and when grilled, hardly any oil comes out. So, I think that Simmered Mackerel in Miso is one of the best way of eating mackerel in Australia and I cook it all year round.
This is my favourite fish dish. It is so hearty and flavoursome. It is best served with rice but of course, you can nibble it with a bottle of warm sake instead.
- 4 sides of mackerel fillets , about 150g each (note 1)
- 2 cups of iced water in a bowl
- 3-4 shallots (scallions), cut into 5cm long pieces
- 3 cm cubes ginger , thinly sliced
- 80 g (2.8oz) Miso
- 200 ml (6.8oz) water
- 200 ml (6.8oz) sake
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 1½ tbsp mirin
- Julienned shallots (scallions) (note 2)
- Julienned ginger
Cut each mackerel piece in half perpendicular to the backbone (note 1). Make a cross incision (x not +, see step-by-step photo) on the skin side of each piece. This is to cook the fish evenly and let the flavour penetrate into the flesh better.
Add about 3 cups of water (not in ingredients) to a saucepan or a deep frying pan and bring it to a boil over high heat. Put each mackerel piece gently into the boiling water (note 3). As soon as the surface of the fish turns to white, transfer the fish to the iced water to cool down. Then pat dry with kitchen paper.
Take 2 tablespoons of water from the Simmering Sauce ingredients and mix with the miso in a bowl so that the miso becomes slightly watery (easy to dilute).
Add shallots, ginger and the Simmering Sauce ingredients, excluding miso, to a shallow pot or a frying pan that can fit all the fish pieces snugly without overlapping. Bring it to a boil over high heat.
Add fish pieces to the pot/pan without overlapping, place a drop lid (note 4) and cook for 2½ minutes.
Reduce the heat to medium and remove the drop lid. Add the miso to the pot/pan in swirling motion so that the miso spreads evenly.
Cook for 5 minutes or until the sauce thickens slightly. Do not condense the sauce too much as the sauce will become too salty (note 5). Use a ladle and pour the sauce over the fish few times while cooking.
Turn the heat off and use a spatula to transfer the fish pieces to serving plates.
Pour some sauce over the fish pieces, sprinkle julienned ginger and place julienned shallots on top if using.
1. If your fillet is much larger, reduce the number of sides and cut each side into 3 or 4 pieces.
2. It is best to use the white part of shallots. After julienned finely either vertically or diagonally, put them in a bowl of iced water. Each strand will start curling. The finer the julienned pieces, the curlier they get. (Looking at the photo of my dish, I didn't do a good job there...)
3. Some recipes call for pouring boiling water over the mackerel pieces to sear it. I find that this method is rather fiddly in turning over each piece to sear the other side. But if you can sear without breaking the fillets, you can try this method.
4. A drop lid is called 'otoshibuta' (落し蓋) in Japanese. It is a round lid that is slightly smaller than the opening of a saucepan. It is traditionally made of wood but I have a stainless-steel lid. It is placed on top of the ingredients in a pot to ensure the heat is evenly distributed, ingredients cook faster, and stay in place without breaking apart. It also stops the liquid from evaporating quickly.
If you don’t have a drop lid, you can make one with aluminium foil. Cut a square in foil, fold the edges to make it a round shape with the diameter slightly smaller than the pot. Then poke the foil with a knife or a chopstick to make holes in several places.
5. If the sauce gets too thick and salty, add water and heat it up.