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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Japanese Sweetfish - The Ayu

I wrote this blog a while ago, actually, and to be honest, my writing sucks in it. It wasn't what I wanted to talk about, and only did it because of what I wrote in the fourth paragraph. Still, crappy writing or not (My Sandman stories make me realize just how good a writer I was when it comes to fiction), here it is. In my defense, I've had a ton of work at work and little time at lunch to write, as I have had little time for lunch. As such... there is a choppiness to the next couple of blogs. Mea culpa.  

I know I've written about this fish in the past, but what the heck, I have far more readers now than then…

One of the tastiest things I ever had to eat in Japan was a fish - the ayu (アユ, 鮎, 年魚, 香魚) which the Japanese would translate for me as "sweetish", which just seemed so bloody generic a name.

Known by its scientific name of Plecoglossus altivelis, I only last week learned it is a relative of the smelt, another fish I love to eat back in Canada, so I guess that explains a lot now.

I would, on occasion be invited to outdoor ayu barbecues by various schools, and I would watch as the male students and teachers would set up traps along the shallows of a river to catch dozens upon dozens of the fish, skewer them (inside-outside-inside-outside) with thin sticks and then perch (no relation) them beside an open fire to cook them. Skewered ayu roasting on a an open fire.
If I recall correctly, just like a smelt, the bones of the ayu were soft, so eating everything but the fins and head was a simple enough matter. I can always recall the slight bitter taste of the liver, but otherwise the fish lived up to its moniker as 'sweetfish'.

Native to rivers, lakes and coastal waters of western Hokkaidō in Japan and southward to the Korean Peninsula, China and Hong Kong, the species became extinct in Taiwan in 1967, although there are populations of re-introduced Japanese stocks in some of the northern streams.

Between 1990-1993, I lived in Tochigi-ken, and saw along the Ohtawara River many large scale ayu traps in the middle of the river where fish would be forced up a bamboo ramp that let the water run down through it back into the river allowing the 'fishermen' to walk the ramp and pick up the flopping fish.

The fish is about 15cm (6-inches) in length, and is slim and silvery. It eats algae, crustaceans, insects, sponges, and worms.

In the Spring, adults come down from coastal waters into the rivers to spawn, which seems to be the only time I've eaten them. I guess I've eaten recently horny fish. I wish I hadn't thought of that.

After hatching, the young larvae move out to the sea and grow there all winter before returning to the river to spawn… and then to die. It's their chance to come and go at the same time. That's my old, old joke - feel free to use it. Granted, not every ayu dies after spawning, but most do, but really, my joke is not only risque, but funny.
A bamboo ayu trap on the Ohtawara River, Tochigi-ken. Photo taken by my mother.
As mentioned, most of the ayu I saw caught were done via rock traps and bamboo ramp traps, but apparently Japanese fisherman also like to fly fish for it.

Known as ayu-no-tomozuri, when fly fishing, since the ayu is highly territorial, fisherman will use a live ayu as bait on the hook, allowing it to swim in the water and attract other ayu fish that want to attack the intruder.

I did see fishermen fly fishing in the shallow rivers, and I thought it was for trout (rainbow), but I can only guess now that perhaps they were fishing for ayu.

Another method—again, one I never saw first-hand—was fishing via the use of cormorant birds—ukai (cormorant fishing 鵜飼). The cormorants, (umi-u, ウミウ), are domesticated birds trained for this purpose. The bird catches the ayu, stores it in its crop and delivers it to the fishermen. I believe there is also a ring around the bird's throat to prevent it from actually swallowing the fish for its own selfish purposes such as eating because it was hungry.

The ayu is the prefectural fish of Gunma and Gifu Prefectures.

If you have an opportunity to go to Japan, or are there now, suggest to the bosses that you have heard about a wonderful Japanese delicacy known as ayu, and see if they don't invite you to a special outdoor dinner come the Spring.

I think I ate something like 14 of' 'em at one Ohtawara Chu Gakko school party out on the stony beach of the Ohtawara-gawa… the ayu are that good… then again, so was the o-sake brought out later on for the teachers.

I'll be honest... I have no idea what happened to the kids... were they still there, or did they go home... man that must have been some great ayu and sake.

Andrew Joseph

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