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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Kusaya - Stinky Japanese Fish

Thanks to my friend Julien who mentioned to me a conversation chef Anthony Bourdain had with Neil Degrasse Tyson (astronomer and mentor to Julien), we have the following topic.

Have you ever heard of the kusaya (くさや)? I hadn't... and I'm kind of glad I didn't know about while I was in Japan, or I'd have to have eaten it just to prove a stupid gaijin (outsider/foreigner) like my self could eat anything a stupid Japanese person could.

The kusaya is a salted and dried and fermented fish.

Uh-huh. Is there more?

Yes... it is famous for being ultra smelly.

To be fair, while super pungent, it is supposed to have a mellow taste, so I am sure I could eat the damn thing because - despite appearances, that big ol honker on my face (my nose) doesn't really work as well as most people's...

Yeah, I smell things, but not as strongly... which is why I could sit in a room full of farts and not care two bits... which is what I often have to do seeing as how my son is eight-years-old.

Why would the Japanese ever want to eat something like this? Well, I can only assume that some guy with a nose structured similar to mine own probably came up with the dish as a means to get back at a lot of people with good sniffers.

Not just myself and my stupidity to always take a dare and shove it up their butt, the Japanese also have a national pride that won't allow them to show weakness... especially amongst their own contemporaries or peers.

At some point during the Edo-jidai (1600s-1867 or so), people on the island of Niijima (part of the Izu Islands chain) used to make salt. I assume it was done by drying salt water so only the salt remained, but what the hell do I know.

Anyhow... these villagers apparently had to pay taxes to the government... taxes were high... and so salt needed to cure fish was used... frugally.

How frugally? They reused the salt again and again... meaning that eventually, this stinky salt would turn an otherwise fine dried fish into something extra... well... stinky.

They called this stinky dried fish kusaya. I believe the slangy word for sh!t is kuso (kso)... and while it's hardly the same thing, it sounds close enough in my mind. I'm just showing off my slangy Japanese.

Anyhow... the slimy, smelly salt would turn into a brine... a tea-colored, sticky, stinky brine... and for some reason... perhaps because salt was still a much prized commodity... it was passed on from generation to generation as a family heirloom.

"Dad died."


"But he left you his kusaya!"


Though kusaya is made on several of the Izu Islands today, it is said that kusaya from Niijima has the strongest odor - and that's a bottle of the stuff in the photo at the very top.

Are you interested in making your own kusaya? What is wrong with you?


The fish used is usually a Mackerel scad (Decapterus macarellus), or a flying type of  fish.

First, you wash the fish in clear water many times. Personally, I think this is just stupid considering what will be done next.

Next, you soak the fish in a brine called kusaya eki (くさや液) which means 'kusaya liquid' or 'kusaya juice' for anywhere from eight to 20 hours.

That kusaya juice has a salt concentration of 8%, compared to the concentration of 18% to 20% in common fish curing brines.

Mmmmm... briny.
 Finally, the fish are laid out under the sun to dry for one to two days.

I would like to do an experiment... I wonder what would smell worse - the fish with the kusaya juice left out in the hot sun... or... a fish just left out in the hot sun?

I bet both would stink equally... BUT... and this is a big but... only one would not kill you.

At least the kusaya juice acts as a preservative when the fish is placed in it... so I guess it allows those brave enough a chance to try it. And possibly survive.

If anyone is going to Japan and wants to bring some of this stuff back... might I suggest you have some fun with the nosy customs guards and let them open up the jar.

After you get out of jail, everyone can have a good laugh at your kusaya.

By the way - the Japanese website for Niijima kusaya is HERE.

Andrew & Julien


  1. Yay. I have a by-line. Can't wait to flaunt this to my wife.

    1. If you can flaunt this to your wife - and she cares - then you are light years ahead of me! Cheers!

  2. Just told her. It seems that we are in the same spot.