Discover Shioyaki

The ancient Japanese technique for grilling little fish over an open flame.

My friend Captain Bob is always saying, “Anyone can hook the big fish. But it takes real skill to hook the little ones!” There is some truth to this statement.

Most fishermen try to catch the big ones. But sometimes that doesn’t always pan out, and catching little fish is better than catching no fish at all.

When things get tough, I have no reservations about downsizing my target species. As long as I can scrounge up enough for a tasty dinner, I am a happy man. Good things sometimes come in small packages, so when life gives you little fish, build a big fire and make some Shioyaki!

I first learned of Shioyaki [shee-oh-YAH-kee] from Chef Myron Becker, an avid angler and hunter who is also the founder of Myron’s Fine Foods, which produces Asian-style marinades and sauces.

Chef Myron first learned the secrets of Japanese cooking in the early ‘60s while serving near Yokohama with the US Navy/NSG. When not intercepting Russian radio messages, he claims to have been using his “spy consciousness” to hide behind trashcans outside local restaurants, gathering intelligence on the preparation of their coveted recipes.

He developed a passion for Japanese cooking styles, and spent much of his free time investigating their flavors and techniques. Being an avid fisherman, he was particularly intrigued with the local seafood, and recalls one particular cooking style that the locals called Shioyaki.

Shioyaki is Japanese for “salt grilled.” It’s an ancient method of grilling whole small fish on an open fire. Traditionally, it was done with ayu, a small fish similar to a smelt that’s only found in Japan. But don’t despair if you can’t find any fresh ayu because this technique works wonderfully with just about any species of small fish. Good candidates include mackerel, cunner, scup, snapper blues, yellow perch, bluegills and my favorite, the brook trout.

STEP 1: Let’s start with the fish, which should be as fresh as possible. Species like trout or mackerel don’t need to be scaled, but if you are using a fish such as scup or perch, thoroughly remove the scales. Carefully gut them and remove the gills, then rinse the fish under cold water.

STEP 2: Use some paper towels to dry them off, both inside and out. Place the fish on a plate and pack them with kosher salt, making sure to get some inside the body cavity. Now, simply let them rest at room temperature for 1 hour. Over time they will begin to “sweat,” as the salt removes moisture from the flesh – this will intensify its flavor.

STEP 3: While the fish are resting in the salt, get a nice big fire going. Make sure you only use hardwood like oak, birch or maple because wood from evergreens will give the food a bitter taste.

STEP 4: Rinse off all the salt with cold water and dry thoroughly with paper towels.

STEP 5: Run a thin stick or skewer through each fish’s mouth and down along its spine. Give the fish (and the grates on the grill) a liberal coating of vegetable oil. Now, load the little suckers onto the red-hot grill and sear them – ideally, you want them about an inch above the flames. Let them sizzle, sear and pop for about a minute, and then flip them. Try to get the skin nice and crispy, and be careful not to char them.

STEP 6: Serve immediately and dunk them in the ponzu sauce as you are eating them. (Chef Myron sells a bottled ponzu sauce that I highly recommend.) Don’t be afraid to eat the skin; it adds a lot of flavor, as do the fins, which should be nice and crispy.After eating the first side, grab the tail and lift out the bones. The fish will taste smoky and briny, but you will notice the true taste of the fish more than anything else. This is serious man-food that should be eaten outdoors, served with a cold lager while watching the sun go down over the mountains

1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon orange or pineapple juice
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar

3 on “Discover Shioyaki

  1. GregW

    Great article.
    This will make a great evening meal/event with my Wife and kids up north this summer.

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