Photos this Post by Kenji Miura
Shiokara, or more precisely ika no shiokara, is most often described as “fermented squid guts.” No surprise that I mistakenly thought the white tendrils inside this delicacy were actually guts, and not the julienned slices of fresh squid that they really were. The raw squid pieces are cloaked in the creamy coral gastric juices squeezed from the inner sack of the squid and are seasoned with a bit of miso, salt, soy sauce, sake, red pepper, and yuzu peel. Heavenly.
We had spent a better part of an hour winding our way through some narrow back streets in a god-knows-where neighborhood of Tokyo. My newfound pal Mike Verretto (a Harvard guy with mad Japanese skills) was intent on finding a Robata-ya. We never did. He was just as intent on me tasting shiokara and ordered it straight away. The server set the dish down on the table and Mike slid it my way. “Squid guts, “ he said. Salty, funky….downright stinky…unpleasant is putting it mildly. “When it’s good, shiokara is very good,” Mike assured me. And those words became almost a mantra for me in my life in Japan. The good is very good, the bad is very bad. And the mediocre is pretty common. Trust me on this.
I was recently at a confab attended by long-term foreigners in Japan, Japanese trend-setters, and some members of METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry). The theme of the meeting was to brainstorm about ways to introduce or promote Japan to countries overseas or foreigners visiting Japan. One participant mentioned he had been thinking to bring a jar or two of shiokara as a way of introducing an unusual Japanese taste but then had reconsidered because it might not appeal to foreigners. Ya think? The thought that immediately jumped into my head was who would want to eat shiokara from a jar? They don’t even sell it at our fish market. When I asked one of the fishmongers he was perplexed (as in “why the hell would you buy it in a jar?”) and pointed me to the semi-fresh plastic packs stacked in the fridge case. I sidled up to the case with my camera and snapped some shots of the label (squid, guts, sugar, salt, vinegar, honey, MSG, sorbitol, polysaccharide thickener, ethanol alcohol, annatto, paprika). Yum. Sounds good, right?
Dodging the mob of people laying in provisions for New Year, I returned to the “real” fish area and selected three of the last squid of the year. My fishmonger scolded me for buying it at the expensive time. “You should have gotten it last week!” Hey, I did…but it was so good, I wanted to make shiokara again. Thrifty has never been my strong suit. I want it, I buy it. And anyway they were only a 100 yen more a piece (adding $3.44 to the total). I could handle that.
Here is the tricky thing about squid though….until you pull the gastric sacs out of the squid you cannot tell what they will contain. If you are lucky, each sac will be plump and the contents will be a rosy coral color. Unlucky and you could have flaccid sacs with brownish or even acrid black juices. The solution here is to buy extra just in case and air-dry the squid bodies you don’t use for shiokara. At least that is my solution, you can choose your own.
The other issue is that in Japan we use surume ika (Japanese common squid, Pacific flying squid). The only squid I had handled in the States recently was at Chez Panisse and I remembered that the guts oozed out a greyish color as we cleaned the squid. Pretty plump sacs of coral were nowhere to be found.
I asked my pal Sylvan Mishima Brackett from Peko-Peko Japanese Catering to give me the low-down on squid in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here is what he found out: “I just talked to Tom [Worthington] at Monterey [Fish] and he told me that most of the squid from Monterey Bay is caught in a seine, vacuumed up, and otherwise abused—causing the ink sack to rupture. He does occasionally get dip net squid, which would be in much better shape. However I have also gotten a couple of really beautiful and LARGE squid from Humboldt from another fish vendor.”
There is no taste sensation that can quite match home-cured ika no shiokara and I hope you can experience this gorgeously enticing dish yourself. So easy to prepare but perhaps so far out of grasp without the Japanese fisherman who takes care to fish the squid gently and lays the bodies lovingly in styrofoam boxes packed in ice and whisked to the nearest fish market. A different culture for a different way of eating. In Japan, raw fish starts with the fisherman and without him we would not be able to continue this way of eating.
Recently someone asked me if I take care to buy only fish from the Sea of Japan to avoid risk of radiation contamination from the Pacific side. I don’t, because I trust my fishmongers and that is one compelling reason to buy from an honest professional with whom you have a relationship. For that kind of person does not have it in him to dupe his customers because he takes pride in his métier. He is a shokuninsan—a craftsman.
Rather than handing someone a pro forma jar of preservative- and MSG-laden ika no shiokara, I’d rather show that person how to make the real thing. If you can find dip net caught squid, that is.
Ika no Shiokara: Miura-san (my photographer) came to record our family’s Christmas preparations and celebration this year and we stopped by the fish market to grab some squid to make shiokara. I had remembered how good his version was from a previous photo shoot and had developed an insatiable craving for it. (He also wrote about it last January on Umamimart.)
Running water makes the squid cleaning process easier to handle but if you live in a water-poor state or country, making due with a bowl of ice water may be more prudent.
I position a cutting board immediately to the left of my kitchen sink, set the bag of squid right behind the board and a wire mesh net in the sink itself. Any squid refuse gets returned to the bag and later composted. Remove the squid from the bag and lay them on the board. Detach the tail portion of each squid by pulling it away from the main body. Drop in the sink as you go. Gently dislodge their inner gastric sac from the body by running your finger around the perimeter of the inside body walls. Grasp the tentacles around the eye area and pull the sac out in one piece. Add the bodies to the pile of tails in the sink. Move the board with the sacs and tentacles to free counter space and bring out another board for your workspace.
Score a vertical line down the outside skin of the squid with a sharp knife (don’t cut the meat, just the skin). Ideally this line will be directly outside of where the plastic-like stick called the gladius is attached. Remove the skin by nudging it off laterally from the center in a rolling motion. Running water helps here. Some skins come off easier than other. Pull the skin off of both sides of the tail, a welcome easy operation. Rinse the tails and set to drain in the wire mesh strainer.
Lay the squid bodies on the clean board and slice them open vertically at the place where you scored the skin. Scrape off any remaining inside slimy tendrils, toss those into the squid bag, and drop the cleaned squid bodies into the strainer with the tails.
Move over the board with the tentacles and sacs. Cut off the tentacles below the eye. Rinse them in the sink under running water and remove any hard portions of the suckers by running your fingernail down each leg. Drop the tentacles into the strainer.
Dry the tails, bodies, and tentacles in a clean dishtowel. Evaluate the amount of squid “guts” in the digestive gland sacs and make a decision about how much squid to keep for shiokara and how much to dry. I usually go with about 3 small sacs per 2 squid or 2½ plump sacs per 2 squid.
Cut the squid bodies in half vertically. Slice crosswise into julienne strips after excising the two hard lumps near the top. Slice the tail portion vertically into strips. Cut the legs off of the portion that joins them and cut into 3-inch/7.5-cm segments. Chop the top portion by cutting through crosswise to free up each little leg nub. Slide the squid pieces into a smallish bowl.
Squeeze the creamy gastric “juices” out of the sacs into the bowl with the squid. Professional chefs will also pass them through a drum sieve (uragoshi). We don’t have to do that though, squishing with your fingers works perfectly fine.
Blend in 1 teaspoon deep-flavored miso, ¾ teaspoon salt, a splash of soy sauce, a splash of sake or shochu, 1 teaspoon finely slivered yuzu or Meyer lemon peel, and one very small red chile pepper sliced into fine rounds. Toss with your fingers and taste for salt. Add a speck more if needed. It should be flavorful and mild, not overly salty. Spoon into a jar and let “ferment” for 24 hours. Eat within 2 days.
Air-dried squid: lay cleaned squid bodies and tentacles (still attached at the top) on a bamboo basket and dry in direct sunlight for 2 to 4 hours until the skin has tightened and developed a slightly leathery texture. Turn once. If you have crows in your area, a nylon fish-drying basket comes in handy. If you clean the squid in the late afternoon or evening, leave it on the basket at cellar temperature and dry outside the next morning. Grill lightly over low-ember coals, julienne, and eat dipped in soy sauce or salt for a before-dinner snack with cocktails. Uncooked dried squid keeps wrapped in the fridge for about a week.