There is a little fish that swims in the cleanest of rivers in Japan. It looks an ordinary fish; slim, silvery grey with gleams of gold. The largest is no bigger than an outstretched palm. It’s part of the salmon family and lives in fast-flowing rivers in central and southern Japan, in western Hokkaido and Kyushu.
More than the fact that its flesh is sweet and tastes like melon, the fish is deeply connected with the Japanese culture. Ayu, also known as Sweetfish, has been likened to the cherry blossom, heralding the arrival of summer just as cherry blossoms signify spring – or just as grilled hot dogs and hamburgers spell summer in the US.
“Ayu makes us feel the seasons,” says a Japanese connoisseur I meet at the Gifu Ayu promotion at Ten Japanese Fine Dining at the Marc Residence in Kuala Lumpur. And seasonality is the soul of the Japanese.
Ayu is born in autumn, swept out to sea in winter, swimming upstream in spring, bulking up in summer and spawning and dying the next autumn. It lives briefly, for one short year.
The very transient nature and elusiveness of the ayu makes it desirable; like how a weak and fragile child has a special place in your heart. Even in Japan, ayu is only eaten fresh next to the river. Wild caught ayu is hardly found away from its source. If available, the price would be prohibitively expensive, in the region of ¥1,000 (RM38) for a little fish the size of a kembung, says Yuki Yoshimi of Akindo Inc. Tokyo, a facilitator for the ayu showcase.
Ayu thrives only in clean rivers and dam building across Japan has wiped out suitable habitats for fish, and the ayu finds itself in the middle of stimulating a growing environmental awareness in Japan.
The region famous for ayu is Gifu in central Japan where the three great rivers of Nagara, Ibi and Kiso flow. The deeply cleft mountains of Gifu hide many cold, clear springs and brooks where the finest ayu are caught.
Come June, the start of the official ayu fishing season, anglers whip out their 10m long rods and head for the mountain streams. Fishing for ayu is prohibited except during a specified season, to make sure the ayu remains a plentiful species.
Anglers bait ayu with another live ayu – ‘buddy fishing’ – taking advantage of the fish’s territorial instinct. Each ayu defends a 10m to 20m territory where it feeds on algae that clings to rocks and will attack any fish that comes near. It gets hooked when it rams the live bait.
Later in the season, in early autumn, they begin to swim downstream, growing meatier and larger. Now they are caught by diverting part of the river into a broad bamboo deck – a yana – where they are collected in a traditional fishing technique. One yana can catch tens of thousands of ayu a day.
On the Nagara River, bonfires are lit to attract ayu to fishing boats, and trained cormorants are sent to catch the fish and bring them back to the boat. This ancient way of fishing dates back 1,300 years and now serves as a tourist attraction – Charlie Chaplin was so moved by the experience he came to see it twice. Edo poet Matsuo Basho wrote two haikus about it.
Ayu of the Nagara River has been mooted for United Nations certification under the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) for sustainable, significant agriculture to safeguard indigenous knowledge and resilient ecosystems. As of 2015, it is pending approval from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Considered the most important species in Japanese freshwater fisheries, farm-raised ayu, as for wild ayu, survives in pure, fresh water. In Gifu, ayu farming channels natural spring water flowing from the same mountain streams that harbour wild ayu and Gifu’s ayu farming leads the world in both technology and technique, according to an official brochure on the region.
Here to introduce ayu to Malaysians is the vice-chief of Gifu prefecture’s Agricultural Policy Planning Department, Mr Asano. “Gifu prefecture is one of the main producers of Sweetfish in Japan and also the best,” the gentleman tells us frankly and we are glad to be tasting good ayu, a fish so notoriously sensitive, only farmed ones can be exported.
To ensure guests – among them decision makers from Japanese restaurants in the Klang Valley – have an immaculate experience and shown the culinary possibilities of ayu, Ten has invited three renowned chefs to prepare the menu: Chikara Yamada of Yamada Chikara restaurant in Tokyo to demonstrate his global el Bulli-esque inspirations; Hisashi Yamashita of the controversial Bistro Q in Tokyo, ostensibly an “adult’s canteen”, and Daisuke Miyake, the head chef of Ten Japanese Fine Dining Australia.
In true elegant Ten style, the seven-course, sake-pairing menu is not all just about the ayu – that would have been overkill. Diners go through four courses – including Yamashita’s famous Foie Gras Hamburger Steak – before having their first taste of ayu in the main dish of Gifu Ayu Sweetfish Cooked Three Ways.
Yamada presents a deep-fried ayu croquette wrapped by Matsutake mushroom to be dipped in el Bulli-inspired espuma tartar sauce. Yamashita presents it French confit-style with a sauce made of passionfruit and cucumber flavoured with tomato and dill. The ayu is slow-cooked for a long time in oil.
Miyake’s Italian-inspired Gifu-Ayu Bagna Cauda is as complex as it is interesting: the crisp-fried ayu – bones and all – is beautifully contrasted with a salad of purple carrot, udo, Belgium endive, Swiss chard and ice plant, and eaten with a dab of piquant, creamy “bagna cauda” sauce flavoured with dried ayu and ayu liver.
The inevitable comparison of the three dishes – and the three chefs – comes in. Each offers a different expression of Sweetfish and shows how its texture and taste can be transformed by cooking. The confit is cottony and melts in the mouth to show off the ayu’s very fine texture. In the bagna cauda the meat is dense and compact, the bones fried to an edible crisp and the sauce deeply flavourful. But perhaps the croquette is my favourite as you can taste the natural sweetness and texture of the ayu best in the deboned fish.
And, to be honest, I do not find a taste of melon in the fish as widely reported. Mr Mori, the CEO of Mori Fish Farm of Gifu prefecture, later explained that the characteristic melon flavour is in raw ayu. A, so desu ka. For this, I’m afraid, you’ll have to go to Gifu where fresh ayu is available.
These are all rather fancy preparations of ayu. According to Asano, in Gifu prefecture, sweetfish is simply grilled and salted and eaten “from its head to tail”, bones and all. He adds that the Gifu ayu has a strong aroma and mild taste.
So perhaps the next dish is more representative of how the Japanese enjoy ayu, in a one-pot meal of grilled ayu and steamed rice. It is an earthy dish worthy of its home-cooked inspiration. We are troubled by some tiny bones in the fish, but it is said that when cooked long enough – hence timing is crucial – even the bones are edible.
As I turn to go, I imagine I look like the cat that got the fish: smiling ear to ear, so glad to know of this sweet little fish and the enchanting story around it and its home of “crystal clear water” in Gifu. I sure hope that Mr Mori managed to convince the local food purveyors present to continue to import ayu to Malaysia.
Ten Japanese Fine Dining
A-G-1 Grnd floor, Marc Residence
3 Jalan Pinang
50450 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-2161 5999
Open daily for lunch and dinner
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