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Extract from Part Five: The Sea

Shio-Katsuo – Nishiizu, Southern Japan

Yasuhisa Serizawa lives in Nishiizu, a fishing town on Japan’s south coast. He is the last surviving producer of one of Japan’s oldest processed foods, skip-jack tuna preserved whole, shio-katsuo. This is not a food for the faint-hearted and needs to be treated with great expertise and care. It’s a leathery, savoury and super-salty product.

When I met him, Serizawa was holding an example of his craft, a half-metre-long tuna. Its silvery skin and white eyes were intact but its body was dry and coated in a fine dusting of salt. It was the most beautiful food I had ever set eyes on. Sprouting out of its mouth, through its gills and along its body, were golden bristles of rice stalks. The grass had been dried in the sun and softened with salt water so that the ends could be tied into large intricate knots. This artful threading of grass in and out of the animal’s desiccated body had been done with such skill that every scale on the tuna’s body remained pristine. Each fish takes Serizawa months to complete, and so he seemed as much an artist as a food producer.

The reason the fish is given such an elegant outfit in its afterlife is that as well as being food, it’s also an offering to Shinto deities. At New Year, people in Nishiizu place the preserved fish in front of their homes and on public shrines. The woven rice grass represents a gift from the land to match the offering of the fish from the sea. ‘At the shrines we offer prayers to keep the fishermen safe,’ says Serizawa, ‘and we ask for good harvests in coming years.’ After the tributes have been paid, shio-katsuo becomes an ingredient; crumbled into a fine, savoury powder, it can transform the humblest of dishes.

Fishermen bring Serizawa tuna, usually caught in September when the fish are in peak condition, full of fat and muscle from months of feeding. The guts and the gills are removed immediately to avoid any ‘off’ flavours, but because of the fish’s sacred status, the eyes are left untouched. The empty belly of the fish is then held open with bamboo skewers and salt is poured into the cavity and packed around the body, to slowly draw all of the moisture from the flesh. Two weeks later, the tuna is bathed in a special liquid prepared with juices saved from previous batches. This adds bacteria to the process and triggers fermentation, ‘which makes it taste a little funky’, says Serizawa. After the intense salting, pairs of fish are tied together and hung outdoors for several weeks under the shade of Serizawa’s factory roof. It’s then he’ll begin knotting and plaiting rice straws, threading each one in and out of the fish, a daily ritual that goes on for weeks.

When shio-katsuo is disassembled from its ceremonial dressing, the flesh of the fish breaks into brown, yellow and silver flakes that glint. Added to rice and vegetable dishes, shio-katsuo adds big meaty flavours. Tiny pieces sprinkled onto a simple bowl of spinach can turn every mouthful into something unexpectedly complex. ‘One plus one becomes three,’ says Serizawa, describing the flavour transformation. And for more than one thousand years, just that sprinkle of shio-katsuo has helped turn ‘poor’ ingredients into noble ones.

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