Salmon “Ishikari-nabe” hotpot 石狩鍋

japanese cake

Ishikari 石狩 was a small coastal town which is located near Sapporo 札幌 where I grew up. Ishikari river 石狩川 drains into Ishikari bay 石狩湾 and to Sea of Japan 日本海 after winding down the ishikari plain. The river flooded often and meandered around. In the interest of efficiency, human intervention made shortcuts and straightened the water ways. As a result scimitar shaped lakes called “Mikazuki-ko” 三日月湖 were left behind. These lakes are mostly located in the area called “Barato” 茨戸, which is between Sapporo and Ishikari. They were separated from the main river but provided good fishing. Over the years Barato has become a suburbs of Sapporo 札幌. It is well developed but some pockets of wilderness remain.

Although Barato is now within commuting distance of Sapporo when my late brother and I were in grade school (9 and 6 respectively) getting there to go fishing was a great adventure–we had to take a bus, which ran infrequently from downtown Sapporo. On one such adventure we were supposed to meet a friend of my father’s to go fishing at one of the lakes. He was supposed to wait for us at the designated bus stop in Barato but we somehow missed the stop and ended up at the beach of Ishikari, the terminus of the bus line.  The kindly female conductor (this was a time when all buses had conductors) took pity on us and promised to get us to the right bus stop on the return run to Sapporo. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, the bus ran only infrequently and the return trip did not occur until that afternoon. So there we were, two waifs, stranded at the desolate Ishikari beach for several hours getting hungry. The kind conductor once again took pity and bought us a bowl of Ishikari-nabe, for which the city is known, from the near-by eatery where she and the driver were eating lunch. I cannot tell you how great it tasted. The dish I made today was Ishikai-nabe. Making it, smelling it and eating it brought back the long ago memory and evoked this long preamble. 

Ishikari nabe was originally a simple fisherman’s stew cooked on the beach using salmon caught in the mouth of the Ishikari river. In the past, salmon were extremely abundant and ran up the ishikari river. The salmon fishery declined drastically for some time but it is making a big come-back because of the continuos release of the hatchlings over many years and improved river management.

There are many variations of this dish but, the original form is very simple; put whatever ingredients are available (you must have salmon, though) in a pot. The broth is ususally seasoned with kelp broth and miso. The secret of making a good Ishikari nabe is to put the miso seasoning in after the vegetables are cooked. The other secret is not to cook the salmon too long.

The above picture of Ishikai-nabe is in a small one person pot (8 inch wide), which my wife and I shared. This time I used, daikon (2 inch long, peeled cut thinly in half moon shape), carrot (one medium, cut thicker than daikon in half moon shape), potato (one medium, cut into half inch thick half moon shape) and cabbage (3 leaves, hard veins removed and roughly chopped). In addition, I used fresh shiitake mushrooms (2), shirataki (1/3, parboiled) and scallion (3, cut in a slant) and salmon fillet (whatever amount you like). I thought of adding tofu but the pot was full and I decided not to use tofu this time. You could add other vegetables, sea food, fish cakes etc if you like. 

I started by soaking kelp (4-5 inch long) in about 3 cups of water for 30 minutes or longer or until it gets hydrated and soft. I put the pot on a medium flame and when the water started to boil turned down the heat and took out the kelp. I put the vegetables which takes a long time to cook in the pot first (cabbage, potato, daikon and carrot) and cooked them for 20-30 minutes on a low flame.

Preparation of the salmon: I had one medium size fillet of salmon (1 lb). After washing and removing any scales and bones if present, I removed the thin fatty belly part or “harashu” ハラス for another dish. I cut the remaining fillet into one inch wide strips and then cut the strips in half to make good sized rectangles. In order to reduce the strong or gamey taste of the salmon, I parboiled it in boiling water with a small amount of sake for just 10-20 seconds. Then I washed the pieces in cold running water and set aside.

Seasoning mixture: I disolved miso (3 tbs) in sake (1 cup) and mirin (3 tbs) in a measuring cup and set aside. You could adjust the sweetness by increasing or decreasing the amount of mirin.

When the vegetables were done, I added shirataki and shiitake. After few minutes of cooking (with lid on), I added the seasoning mixture above. After coming back to a simmer, I added the salmon and scallion and cooked it until salmon was just done (3-4 minutes). Some people add butter or milk at the end but I did not.

We enjoyed this with sprinkles of 7 flavored Japanese red pepper flakes and warmed sake. We have not had warmed sake for ages but I just wanted to try it again. I thought Gekkeikan “Black and Gold” (US brewed) is perfect for drinking warm since it is very gentle sake. It took some effort to find the “ochoushi” お銚子 flask for waming the sake. My wife finally found one (Hagi ware 萩焼) in the back of the cupboard. I gently warmed the flask in a hot water to 118 F (I measured the temperature using a digital instant meat thermometer). Guinomi ぐいのみ is made by an American artist Peggy Loudon, which my wife acquired at one of the Smithonian craft shows held at the building museum in Washington, DC. The warm sake was perfect with this nabe on this cold night–especially since we were anticipating a big snow storm which luckily just missed the Washington area by a hair. We probably will go back to drinking cold sake…warm sake is good on certain occasions but in general we prefer cold sake.

P.S.  This recipe was featured in “The Jerusalem post” by Johanna Bailey.

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