"There's lots of good fish in the sea ... maybe ... but the vast masses seem to be mackerel or herring, and if you're not mackerel or herring yourself, you are likely to find very few good fish in the sea."
D.H. Lawrence (1928)
In his newsletter to market customers this weekend, Les reinforced a conversation we’d had recently, that mackerel were around unusually late – sadly a manifestation of climate change witnessed through a culinary lens. Unusual times call for unusual measures, so I thought I’d hunt for something a little exotic to do with the really quite fine late-season mackerel we’ve had on offer.
I chatted a few evenings ago with a very friendly food blogger who has a great Instagram feed, @foodjunkie_uk about what inspiration might be drawn from the cuisine of her home country of Taiwan and interestingly she informed me that the Taiwanese are inclined to enjoy their mackerel simply grilled just like so many other cultures, east and west. A parallel chat with pal In-Chan Kim led to more or less the same conclusion about the Korean treatment of mackerel.
However, @foodjunkie_uk brought to my attention that Taiwanese cuisine contained elements of Japanese, Chinese and even Spanish and Dutch styles, so I widened my search and found something Japanese that has properly hit the spot. It’s by Harumi Kurihara, in her book "Harumi's Japanese Cooking" which my late grandmother gave me for Christmas in 2005, and she calls it “Mackerel ‘Tatsuta-Age’ Style”. It's really simple: marinate mackerel fillet in sake, mirin, ginger and soy, dust in potato starch (or cornflour) and deep-fry. Crispy exterior, succulent and aromatic centre. Tatsuta-Age, according to the article, "Tatsuta Age vs Karaage: What is the Difference?", is one of a collection of Japanese deep-fried cooking styles, collectively known as Agemono, in which different treatments are characterised by their specific marination and the starch/flour used.
As I considered this recipe I thought about how I might like to serve it. It seemed to me that it was ideal for a “Japanese-style” tapas or mezze type of meal, perhaps with Tempura Oysters, and something veggie for a pescatarian spread. I had an impromptu dog-walk, just before cooking this up, with our lovely neighbour (I needed a couple of tablespoons of her sake, she was up for a brief stroll and Artoo needed a pee) and our chat fell upon tempura vegetables. Result! Add dipping sauce and that’s our spread.
Truth be told I don’t think I nailed the cooking here but the texture was as the doctor ordered, the colour not what nurse would applaud. I wonder whether (the correct) potato starch rather than the alternative of cornflour might make the difference in the final appearance. It's available in health food shops, though not my local one when I last went in. I will try this recipe with the potato starch (if there are still mackerel around!), and update this post accordingly, but so keen was I to get a late-season mackerel dish out there that I thought, given it works apart from the aesthetics, get on with getting it out there and deal with the refinement in due course.
If the mackerel fillets come from a larger fish, your fishmonger has a natty way of cutting a groove down the length of the loin end that removes the lateral bones. In the case of smaller fish the bones are so small as to be hazard-free and more or less melt when the fish is cooked anyway to the point of being unnoticeable.
For the tempura vegetables and the accompanying dipping sauce I largely followed a recipe from the BBC Good Food website: "Vegetable tempura with soy & dipping sauce". I used a mix of red pepper, courgette, spring onion and green beans and I used lime zest instead of lemon zest in the dipping sauce. But whatever seasonal vegetables (the green beans were not seasonal I acknowledge!) you fancy would be perfectly delicious.
Mackerel "Tatsuta-Age" Style
Ingredients (Serves 2 as part of a spread)
150-200g mackerel fillets, skin-on, cut into 1-1½" lengths
1 tbsp sake
½ tbsp mirin
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 tbsp soy sauce
Cornflour (or preferably potato starch) for coating
Sunflower, vegetable or groundnut oil for deep-frying
Finely sliced green of spring onion, to garnish
Lime wedges, to serve
Marinate the mackerel pieces in the sake, mirin, ginger and soy for 20-30 minutes.
Heat the oil to around 170°C. Dust half of the marinated mackerel in the cornflour or potato starch and fry the batch in the oil for no more than a minute so that it turns golden and does not overcook the centre. Drain the batch on a plate lined with kitchen paper. Repeat with the second batch.
Garnish with the spring onion slices and serve straight away with the lime wedges along with your chosen accompaniments.
14 July 2021: Having tried this recipe again with the summer mackerel now in the local farmers' markets I can confirm that potato starch does achieve a better result than cornflour for this recipe. It is crisper and more golden. I've changed the photo but should point out that given the time of year I couldn't help including some aubergine in the tempura selection as it's in season and one of my favourite tempura vegetables.
"Harumi's Japanese Cooking", Harumi Kurihara (2004), pp. 95: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Harumis-Japanese-Cooking-Contemporary-Popularcooking/dp/1557884862