"Ayu" 鮎 is a small river/lake fish and appears to have a special place in Kyoto cuisine 京料理 and the minds of people living in Kyoto. Many years ago we had the honor of dining at "Tankuma" たん熊 in Kyoto. This was not a "walk-up-to-the-door-and-automatically-be-seated" affair. It was the result of wheels within wheels and contacts of contacts. At that time, our sushi chef "Hajime" who worked at, now long closed, Mikado Japanese Restaurant at Tenleytown in DC, had a friend, who was one of the chefs at Tankuma and had been sent to temporarily work at the Japanese embassy in Washington. Based on Hajime's personal recommendation, we were given entre to Tankuma on our next trip to Kyoto. Hajime's friend seated us at a private counter (rather than a room) where we were attended by the careful ministrations of two chefs. We were served an incredible course of Kyoto cuisine. Inevitably, one of the dishes was grilled Ayu on pine needles 鮎の松葉焼. My wife, in her usual style, meticulously cleaned the meat off the bone leaving behind the head and a pristine skeleton. The chefs were impressed with her chopsticks dexterity. They took the perfect skeleton, deep fried it and re-introduced it as "bone senbei" 骨せんべい.
We have enjoyed ayu on many occasions since then but always grilled. I have never really understood what all the hoopla was about. It struck me as a rather humdrum little white meat fish. Recently, I saw a blog post about small deep fried ayu or "kara-gage" 唐揚げ. We've never eaten it that way so I was curious about how it would taste. Then, this weekend, I saw fresh small ayu from Japan in the Japanese grocery store. They were fresh (not frozen) and directly from Japan (#1 in the composite below). They had clear eyes and looked good to me. I have never seen ayu sold here and bought it (this was the only package left). Since they were rather small or "Chiayu" 稚鮎, I decided to try "kara-age".
I probably put too much potato starch on the fish but this was good. I served this with our coleslaw and a wedge of lemon.
The major decision point was whether to leave or remove the innards. Traditionally, like Sanma さんま or Pacific saury, the innards of ayu are left in and eaten. For sanma (frozen), I usually remove them. I decided to leave the innards especially since they were small ayu and if my wife did not like it she could always remove the meat and leave them behind.
I washed the fish and, using a filet knife, removed the slimy mucus on the surface and small scales but did not removed the innards or fins (see below composite #2). I dried the surface and salted with Kosher salt. I let it sit in the refrigerator on a paper towel lined plate without a cover for several hours (see below and the composite #3), Kosher salt crystal melted and drew out some moisture.
I dried the surface with a paper towel and dredged with potato starch or katakuriko 片栗粉 (#4). I heated vegetable oil to 160C (320F) and deep fried the fish (#5) for 5 minutes one each side (#6). I removed the fish on a paper towel line plate and turned up the heat until the oil temperature went up to 175C (350F) and re-fried the fish for 2 minutes on each side.
Taking the clue from Icebreaker summer sake, I served "G" sake on the rocks.
We squeezed on the lemon and ate all of the ayu; starting with the head through to the crispy tail innards and all. Now I understand what all the hoopla is about. This was very good. The meat melted in the mouth like butter and the bones gave a nice little crunch. The innards imparted a pleasant slight bitterness. So after we finished, nothing was left on the plates. My wife asked if I could go back to the store tomorrow to get some more. (No, as I said, that was the last pack). Since the ayu is related to smelt, this way of cooking produced similar good results. The G sake on the rocks went very well and this will be a subject of another post.