Discovering Yakizakana: Japan’s Flavorful Grilled Fish Tradition

Japan is a country surrounded by the ocean, and as such, seafood has always played an essential role in its culinary culture. One popular way to enjoy fish is 焼き魚 yakizakana, which refers to fish grilled with a variety of seasonings and flavors. In this guide, we will introduce you to the world of yakizakana, including the most popular types, flavoring styles, where to enjoy them, and tips for making the most of your experience.

What is yakizakana?

Whether grilled, broiled, or roasted, yakizakana is a staple of Japanese home cooking and is often served as a main course with rice, miso soup, and pickles. The fish is typically seasoned with salt or a light marinade, allowing the natural flavors of the seafood to shine through. Japanese chefs take great care in selecting and preparing the fish, resulting in a dish that is both succulent and flavorful.

Saba (mackerel) on the grill.

Where to find yakizakana

Yakizakana can be found in many dining establishments across Japan, from casual 居酒屋 izakaya gastropubs to traditional 料亭 ryōtei restaurants. Some establishments specialize in seafood dishes, offering a wide variety of grilled fish options. You can also find yakizakana in supermarkets and fish markets, with pre-grilled options available for takeaway or home cooking.

縞ホッケ shimahokke (Atka mackerel) being grilled robatayaki style.

For a more immersive experience, consider visiting a 戸畑焼 robatayaki restaurant. At these establishments, chefs grill fish and other ingredients over an open charcoal fire, often right in front of the guests. The food is then served on long wooden paddles, creating a unique and memorable dining experience.

Types of Yakizakana

saba (mackerel): Saba is known for its oily and flavorful flesh. It is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, making it a healthy choice. Its distinct flavor is loved by many, and it is a popular choice for yakizakana.

Enjoying grilled saba.

sake, also pronounced shake (salmon): Sake is a versatile fish with tender, fatty flesh. It is popular in many dishes, including sushi and sashimi, but it is also a popular choice for yakizakana due to its well-balanced taste and texture.

A favorite in Japanese breakfasts, grilled salmon is also a popular choice any time of the day.

秋刀魚 sanma (Pacific saury): Sanma is a seasonal fish with a strong, rich flavor. Its oily flesh becomes especially tasty when grilled, and it is considered a delicacy in Japan during autumn.

Grilled sanma (Pacific saury).

aji (horse mackerel): Aji is a smaller fish with delicate, lean flesh. It has a subtle flavor that is enhanced when grilled, making it a popular choice for those who prefer a lighter taste.

鯵の開き aji no hiraki, salt-dried and grilled aji (horse mackerel).

ホッケ hokke (Arabesque greenling or Okhotsk ataka mackerel): Hokke is known for its firm, white flesh that is mild in flavor. It has a unique, flaky texture when grilled, making it a popular choice for those who enjoy a more tender fish.

About to dig into some delicious grilled hokke, one of the easiest yakizakana to eat.

ししゃも shishamo (smelt): Shishamo is a small fish that is often grilled whole. Its soft, tender flesh is complemented by the roe found inside during certain seasons, adding an additional layer of flavor and texture.

Shishamo (smelt) being grilled whole.

Other notable yakizakana fish include のどぐろ nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch), 鰤 buri (yellowtail), 鰆 sawara (Spanish mackerel) and 鯛 tai (seabream), to name but a few.

Flavoring Styles

In addition to 塩焼き shioyaki, which is the simplest flavoring style, consisting of salting and grilling fresh fish, there are other styles that add a unique touch to yakizakana. Here are some of the common ones:

味噌漬け misozuke: Fish is marinated in a miso-based paste before grilling. This style is popular with salmon and cod.

粕漬け kasuzuke: Fish is marinated in 酒粕 sakekasu (the lees left over from sake production) for a rich, complex flavor. This method is often used with saba and sea bream.

西京焼き saikyōyaki: Fish is marinated in a sweet miso sauce called 西京味噌 saikyō miso, which originates from Kyoto. This style is commonly used for black cod and salmon.

Black cod Saikyo-yaki style.

There are also others, such as 塩こうじ漬け shiokōjizuke, or fish seasoned with salt-marinated rice malt, and 照り焼き teriyaki, a glaze of soy sauce, mirin and sugar, which may taste different than the “teriyaki” flavor popularized outside of Japan.

Tips for enjoying yakizakana

When eating yakizakana, be aware that the fish may contain small bones. Japanese people are skilled at using chopsticks to pick apart grilled fish and remove bones, but this may be a challenge for some tourists. Take your time, and don’t hesitate to ask for assistance if needed.

Shioyaki is typically served with grated daikon. You can add soy sauce to your liking and eat it together with the fish. You may also find wedges of citrus fruits such as sudachi (a small, green fruit with a delicate aroma) which you can use to season your yakizakana. In more fancy establishments, you may also see a red and white shoot of marinated ginger known as 薑 hajikami. It’s mostly edible, although the bottom part may sometimes be too pithy to eat. It will freshen your palate, so why not give it a try?

Grilled sawara Saikyo-yaki style with kabosu and hajikami on the side.

In conclusion, yakizakana is a delicious and healthy way to enjoy seafood in Japan. With its wide range of fish options and flavoring styles, there’s something to suit everyone’s taste. By trying different types of yakizakana and exploring various flavoring styles, you can discover the rich and diverse world of Japanese grilled fish. Don’t forget to keep our tips in mind as you enjoy this unique culinary experience.