Shime saba (Japanese cured mackerel)

This dish is sometimes referred to as ‘fisherman’s cured mackerel’ in Japanese, presumably because some fishermen begin preparing it aboard their boat, with the dish ready either later for their lunch, or by the time they get back to shore. How fresh is that?

Curing it also means that the mackerel, which can degrade faster than some other fish species, will last at least an extra day after preparation.

Recipe from the Martini Socialist.


  • 2 mackerel fillets
  • 4tbsps salt and an extra pinch or so
  • 240ml clear vinegar
  • 1tbsp mirin (you can substitute this with sweet sherry or a ½ tbsp sugar)


  • Put the mackerel fillets in a container and cover them with the 4tbsp salt, making sure that no parts are left uncovered on either side.
  • Transfer the fillets to a sieve and place it over some sort of container, bowl or sink to catch any of the liquid that the salt will draw out.
  • If you’re left with any salt in the container sprinkle it over the top of the fillets.
  • Leave the fillets on the sieve for an hour.
  • Meanwhile, mix together the vinegar, mirin and extra pinch or two of salt.
  • Stir it so the salt dissolves, then set aside.
  • After an hour, carefully take each fillet and rinse it under cold water.
  • Make sure the tap is not set on high pressure or you could damage the fillet.
  • Carefully dry off the fillets with kitchen towel.
  • Find a sealable container. It should be able to hold the two fillets and when filled with the liquid mixture you have made it should cover both the fillets.
  • Pour a little of the mixture into this container.
  • Lay the fillets in the container flat, side by side then pour over the rest of the vinegar mixture.
  • Seal the container and put it in the fridge for 3 hours.
  • Take the fillets out of the container and carefully dry them with kitchen towel once again.
  • You will notice that the flesh has become firm, almost as if the fish has been cooked.
  • It feels like a drier version of ceviche.
  • The next step can be quite satisfying once you get over the fiddly bit at the beginning.
  • Start at the top end of the fish and find yourself a bit of the transparent, papery skin to hold on to. It’s like trying to peel back a new piece of Sellotape.
  • Once you’ve peeled back a bit, gently pull the skin off all the way along the fillet.
  • You might have to go very slowly with this, as it can tear away some of the flesh and make the fish look a little bit ragged.
  • Some of the iridescence will inevitably come off but don’t worry. This is normal.
  • Next, turn the fillets flesh-side up.
  • Look carefully and feel along the middle groove of the fillet for any bones.
  • Gently but firmly use a pair of tweezers to pull them out.
  • The fillet is now ready for serving.
  • You can slice the fillets into long strips and use them as ingredients in sushi maki rolls.
  • Alternatively, place the fillets skin-side up onto a chopping board.
  • Slice them into 4-5mm pieces, moving along the length of the fillet.
  • You can make thin, shallow cuts as you go along between each slice (these allow it to absorb more sauce if you dip it).
  • And it’s ready!

A traditional Japanese way to serve it would be sashimi-style, served as it is on a plate, with some soy sauce to dip, with wasabi and/or grated fresh ginger, as well as pickled ginger on the side.

It is also commonly served as nigiri (ie a slice of the fish is laid over a mouthful of sushi rice) as shown in the middle piece above.

You can use chopsticks to eat this fish, knife and fork, a snail fork, or just your fingers. It also goes well with wedges of lemon, a splash of balsamic vinegar, sliced radishes and/or salad.

Some chefs also briefly blowtorch the shime saba pieces to blister the surface of the skin for extra flavour.

Once you have peeled off the skin and removed the bones you can leave the fish in a sealed container in the fridge for up to a day before serving, which makes it a handy addition to a starter.

The technique for preparing the mackerel also helps preserve its beautiful, iridescent skin colour.

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