Kusaya: The Japanese Stinky Fish

A lot of people say that it is healthier to consume vegetables and seafood instead of meat. Due to its many contents such as vitamins and minerals, vegetables and seafood are among the top choices of people trying to live a healthy lifestyle. There are many types of vegetables and seafood that one can try. In Japan, there are various kinds of seafood that one can try, as the country is surrounded by bodies of water filled with several sea creatures. These are prepared in different ways depending on the seafood and on one’s liking. One of the most notable seafood in Japan would be none other than kusaya.

The Bad-Smelling Fish Kusaya 

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A salted-dried and fermented fish, kusaya is well-known is to be prepared in the Japanese style. Its fame comes from the stench that it omits, much to the disdain of many people. Kusaya can be likened to the fermented Swedish herring known as Surströmming. Literally translating to “smells bad,” kusaya is a Japanese term infamous for it smell. It is a kind of preserved dried fish that just smells bad.

With the scientific name of Decapterus macarellus, kusaysamaro is the fish that is used to make kusaya. Locally, the fish is known by other names such as shakkari in Koudu Island and aumuro oomuro boomuro in Ogasawara archipelago as well as Izu archipelago. Kusayamaro also sometimes goes by the name of muroaji due to the fish being of the muroaji genus. However, it is generally known as kusayamaro in the islands located near Tokyo based on the local name aumuro and the traditional way that the fish is preserved known as kusaya.

The body of the fish is flat and shaped like a spindle. It has two hues in its body, namely, a deep blue color at the back of the body and a silvery gray color at the abdomen. A blue band connects the head and the tail of the fish by running along the center of the side of the body. It has four fins in its body that are separated by a soft fluid lining, namely, one fin at the chest, one fin at the stomach, and two dorsal fins. This fish can grow up to 50 centimeters long.

Despite the strong pungent scent of kusaya, it can be rather surprising for most people that its taste is actually quite mellow. Typically accompanied by Japanese sake or shochu when eaten, this combination is a must-try. Some people may even opt to eat kusaya with a local drink known as Shima Jiman, which literally translates to “island pride.” Brine is utilized in making kusaya. This brine is composed of several vitamins and organic acids like propionic acid, acetic acid, and amino acids. Thanks to these, the resulting dried fish has considerably high nutritional value.

Generally, kusaya is made and eaten in Izu-shoto or the Izu Islands. These include Hachijojima, Oshima, Miyakejima, Kodushima, Niijima, and Shikinejima. Basically, kusaya can be found on the Ogasawara Islands, which are islands that are remote and located farther south of the Tokyo metropolis. Going to these islands may not always be a breeze. Visitors may opt to try going to these islands via riding a ship though this may take a long time. Nonetheless, many people have proceeded to travel in order to get a taste of kusaya among other activities.

History of the Stinky Japanese Fish

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The origins of this smelly Japanese fish known as kusaya goes way back. It was during the Edo period, which was from the year 1603 to the year 1867, that several schools of fish were brought about by the strong Kuroshio current near Tokyo, specifically the Izu archipelago. Several families were dependent on fishing as their means of livelihood. As such, people in the islands cultivated a culture of consuming fish in their everyday living.

On the other hand, salt was considered a commodity at the same. As there was a limited supply of salt, it was considered a highly valuable resource in the islands. It was so valued to the point that salt could be used to pay for yearly land taxes by the inhabitants of the island. As it was seen as a rare commodity, fishes were soaked in their juices in order to preserve them.

The method of preparing kusayamaro and hamatobiuo into dried products was known as kusaya. It was typically conducted in Hachijo Island during the Edo period. Kusaya was to be seasoned with soy sauce and would result in what was called “island sushi” by the locals. Along with hamatobiuo soup, island sushi and kusaya were part of the foods offered in essential ceremonial festivities celebrated on the island. The kusayamaro juice emanated a unique scent that appealed to the locals at the time. Moreover, it contained a deep flavor that the locals loved in comparison to other marine products in the region, which they deemed only ordinary.

However, the lifestyle, as well as the culture, of the people changed through the years. It could be attributed to modern housing as well as the boom in construction. As these developments progressed through time, the rich flavors and the consumption of kusaya slowly decreased. The younger generations ceased to follow the fishing traditions of their ancestors. This was especially apparent in Niijima Island and Hachijo Island, where the production of kusaya was quite strong traditionally. Still, there are still some people who continue this legacy and look for quality raw materials that are essential in processing as well as manufacturing fish products.

Another production based on kusayamoro is murobashi. Local tours and fishing experiences for the learning of students were designed and planned by Slow Food Tokyo for this food product. Various tasting sessions were also made to cater to the learning of these students. It shows the method of cooking fish by letting them dry under the heat of the sun. On the other hand, consuming “kusaya juice” is believed to have originated from the idea that soaking fish in brine repeatedly would eliminate it of germs and bacteria harmful to the bodies of consumers.

The salty soup made from using kusaya is known as kusaya-eki. It is also a popular dish that incorporates the wondrous taste of kusaya. The brine where the fish is soaked in is not only stinky but also sticky and has a color similar to that of tea. Many brine recipes have been passed on to the next generations as a family heirloom. A lot of these recipes originate from the inhabitants of the islands that incorporated this method back in the day. It is said that the kusaya with the stronger scent hails from Niijima Island.

How to Make Kusaya

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There are now modern methods as well as the traditional ones of making kusaya. The first step of making kusaya using the traditional processing method is by first opening the fish manually. By hand, remove the internal organs of the fish as these would not be using in the next phases of making kusaya. Furthermore, not many people actually consume the internal organs of fishes. The second step is to form the body of the fish into a butterfly and wash the meat of the fish thoroughly with cold water. This is to ensure that the fish is clean from any dirt.

The third step is to let the fish soak in its own kusaya juice for about 8 hours to 20 hours. This is to let the meat of the fish fully absorb the juices. After which, the next step would be to remove the juice by the use of a porous basket. At this step, it is believed that the meat of the fish has already soaked up enough juices to attain a certain flavor. Rinse the fish with cold water, which will, in turn, remove the extra salts. After the fish has been washed, let its body dry under the sun for a day or two.

Not only does the fish have a unique albeit a bit foul aroma, it also has a salty flavor. However, in comparison to most typical dried fish, its flavor may be considered a tad mellower. The way to cook this fish is by roasting it lightly. It is commonly eaten by incorporating it in dishes and dressing with sauce or tea. This has been the case since the Edo period. While the modern way of making kusaya has been modernized through the years thanks to technology, the biology of the food itself remains the same. However, instead of manually opening the fish, there are now machines that can mechanically do this. Furthermore, there are now other methods of drying the fish such as applying cold air in a dry room.

Several species of fish are used to make kusaya such as mackerel scad or decapterus macarellus and flying fish. Wash with clear water several times, it is then soaked in a brine known as kusaya eki, which translates to either “kusaya liquid” or “kusaya juice.” The brine mixture contains a salt concentration of 8 percent, which is lower in comparison to the concentration of other common fish curing brines, which is about 18 percent to 20 percent. A number of installations, even a video, of how to make kusaya can be found in the Niijima-Mura Museum on Niijima Island.

While the brine mixture is initially just made of only salt and water, it is believed that the mixture begins to ferment after having been used repeatedly. These fermented brine mixtures are preserved for a long time with some of the brine mixture reaching more than 100 years old. In order to preserve not just the brine mixture but also the tradition of making kusaya, this liquid is taken care of. Similar to other fermented products, kusaya is believed to be quite good for the health. Packed with various vitamins, minerals, and protein, kusaya is created by both nature and the hands and hearts of the people.

Enjoying this Japanese Fish Despite Its Smell

While kusaya is infamous for its distinct albeit foul scent, many people still enjoy consuming it. Some may like it due to its salty but mellow flavor while others may like it for its nutritional value. Based on a researched conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute, kusaya is packed with much proteins and calcium in comparison to normal dried fish. Some of the results obtained from consuming kusaya include fatigue recovery and slow aging. Hence, people who are stressed and tired from work may benefit from eating kusaya.

Another plus in consuming kusaya is that it is a fermented food. It is all natural and does not contain any artificial flavoring or preservatives. Plus, its sodium content is considerably lower in comparison to other normal dried fish. One’s own kidneys would definitely thank one for opting for food with less sodium content.

Rich in nutrition, many also believe that kusaya also has positive effects on people who drink alcohol. It is said that it can help fight off drunken sickness as well as hangovers. This may be attributed to the vitamins contained in kusaya such as vitamin B1 niacin. kusaya also help boost the decomposition of alcohol content in one’s body. This is why many people consume kusaya with Japanese sake.

While kusaya is commonly cooked by grilling, it can still be eaten without having to heat it. Furthermore, due to its foul smell, kusaya products are often either bottled or packed in vacuum so as not to discourage people from buying just because of the smell. Also, grocery stores would not want to stink up the whole shop just because of kusaya products.

At present, kusaya is mainly produced in Hachijo Island, Niijima Island, and the Izu large islands in Tokyo prefecture. On the other hand, the traditional production area of kusaya is the whole Izu archipelago. Despite its stinky odor, many people still wish to consume kusaya for various reasons. Instead of just concentrating on the smell, they opt to also base their judgments of consumption on the mellow flavor as well as the nutritional value of kusaya. They remain undeterred by the foul smell because of the other great qualities of kusaya.