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Nitsuke: Simmered Delicacy

March 23, 2017

What’s the best way to eat a fish head? Owner-chef Keiji Mori of the restaurant, Ginza Maru, brings out a dish of snapper head, simmered in the style called nitsuke, and says, “You start with the eye."

“You lift out all the meat around the socket as well as the eye,” Mori says. I carefully insert my chopsticks, and lift. The sweet aroma of the sauce rises from the plate. “Eat the whole thing at once,” he says. “Remove the hard center and the bone-like part and enjoy the rest of it.” 

I do as he says and the eyeball quickly dissolves in my mouth. It is jelly-like, mild and rich. The simmering liquid is a delicate blend of soy sauce, sake (brewed rice wine), mirin (sweet sake), sugar and water. Some chefs use dashi broth in place of water. The sauce is very slightly thickened by the use of a drop lid, or otoshibuta.

Photo: Mark Robinson

Nitsuke goes back to the beginnings of Japanese cuisine. (Ni means to simmer, and tsuke indicates added flavor.) The fish head is called kabutoni (kabuto means literally, helmet). There is usually just one eye, since by splitting the head vertically with a very sharp knife, the chef makes two dishes from one head.

That may not seem like a lot of meat, but there are tender chunks of flesh at the cheek, the gill, and behind the brain. These parts are delicate and white – since simmered fish cooks fast, the sauce doesn’t penetrate deeply. Mori suggests dipping the pieces into the surrounding liquid before eating. 

Fish heads are only one style of nitsuke cooking. A chef may use any part of a fish, or the whole fish.

“Nitsuke developed as a way to prepare fish in the days before refrigeration and efficient distribution systems,” says Mori. “It’s ideal for fish that goes off easily, or is borderline fresh. A chef will decide what’s the best way to cook a fish. If it’s perfectly fresh of course you eat it raw, as sashimi, or just grilled with salt.” I ask if nitsuke could be considered a kind of preserved food. Mori agrees. “The longer you want to keep the fish, the more concentrated you will make the sauce.” 

Mori says the philosophy of Japanese cooking is to respect food ingredients in their natural state. “Other cuisines such as French add layers of seasoning; they add complexity,” he says. “With Japanese cuisine, the chef’s job is to present the freshest items possible, and bring out their inherent flavor. You just want to remove bitterness and other unwanted tastes.” 

Photo: Mark Robinson

There are various ways to eliminate excessively fishy odors when cooking nitsuke, including shocking the fish with boiling water, or blanching it before simmering in the sauce. Chefs also use aromatics, such as ginger. Seasonal garnishes include yuzu citrus zest in winter, or kinome pepper leaves in spring and summer. Strongly flavored and oily fish such as mackerel may be simmered in a miso sauce. 

Common fish for nitsuke include snapper, kinmedai (golden eye snapper), flounder, mackerel and others. Seasoning is a matter of preference and how long you want the fish to keep.

Another factor in seasoning is how the fish will be eaten. The nitsuke Mori serves at lunchtime is more strongly flavored than in the evening, because it will be eaten with rice as part of a solid meal. But at night the atmosphere is more relaxed. Customers sit back with drinks, often sharing small dishes in the style of the Japanese izakaya, or pub. The nitsuke at this time may be eaten on its own, with a glass of sake. So it is more delicate, as Mori wants the flavor of the fish to shine through.

With adjustments such as these nitsuke can be adapted to a range of moods. Whichever way you make it, it is a quick-to-prepare standard that’s a staple of real Japanese home cooking.

Text: Mark Robinson

Ginza Maru
6-12-15, 2F, Ichigo Ginza 612 Bldg,
Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Tel:(+81) 3-5537-7420