Kanako's Kitchen

Saba Nitsuke: Simmered Mackerel

Posted in main dish, Recipe by Kanako Noda on July 19, 2010

Nitsuke is a very simple simmering technique that yields a deep, sweet, salty, gingery, umami main dish in just a few minutes. A mainstay of everyday Japanese home cooking, Saba Nitsuke is definitely one of the three or four most often-cooked Japanese dishes.

It’s hard to know what more to say about it, actually. My husband pointed out to me that my mom would make it constantly while we were staying at my parents’ house in Japan. But Saba nitsuke is so common, banal even, it’s almost invisible: I’d never even noticed how often we eat it until he mentioned it.

This simmering technique, by the way, works well not only with mackerel but also with just about any kind of fatty fish, including flatfish, sea bream, sardines and pacific saury, too.

Serve Saba Nitsuke alongside white rice and miso soup for the quintessetial Japanese home-cooked meal.

Ingredients (for two)

  • One whole mackerel (fillets are also fine)
    I used frozen whole mackerel but fresh is great, too.
  • Sake – 1/3 cup
  • Mirin –  1/3 cup
  • Water – 1 cup
  • Soy sauce – 1/3 cup
  • Sugar – 3 tablespoons
  • Ginger – one small piece, sliced thin


First you fillet the mackerel by cutting it into four parts ( two fillets, which you cook, and the head and the spine, which you discard).

  1. Cut off the head.
  2. Gut the fish. Run the fish under a cold water tap to clean it.
  3. Slice it open from the tail to the head along the spine.
  4. Slice the other side too.
  5. Pat off the excess moisture using kitchen paper and cut a few slits in the skin of the fish.


  1. Boil the sake and mirin at high heat to get rid of the alcohol. Use a pan big enough so the fish can fit in it without piling up.
  2. Add water, sugar, soy sauce and sliced ginger. Bring it to a boil again.
  3. As soon as it boils, place the fillets in the pan, scooping the sauce over them  now and then while they cook.
  4. When it starts boiling again, make a paper towel dome  to seal in the moisture and cook over middle heat for about 4 minutes.
  5. Take off the paper-towel dome and cook until the sauce reduces (for about 8 minutes), scooping a little of the sauce over the cooking fillets now and then to keep the top shiny and moist. Don’t move the fish around (it will break apart if you move it) just ladle the sauce over the fish.
  6. When the sauce becomes thicker and the fish turns beautifully golden and glazed, it’s ready.
  7. Place carefully the fish on a plate and pour the sauce on it, then serve.

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11 Responses

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  1. Chris said, on October 7, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    This is just what I’ve been looking for. I have one small problem though. Finding sake, for cooking or drinking, is close to impossible where I am in Canada unless I make a journey to Toronto I suspect. The closest I can find for cooking is chinese rice wine. Would that be an acceptable substitute or blasphamy?

    • kanako said, on October 11, 2010 at 9:57 pm

      Hi Chris,

      The taste is a little bit different, but I have also used chinese rice wine when I can’t find sake myself. It’s really ok in a pinch.

    • Lexis Kross said, on October 26, 2015 at 2:43 am

      I live in Canada too and have always found Sake at the liquor stores.

  2. Olga Mokhov said, on January 2, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    what is the purpose of the paper towel? Also on step 5 do I need to take the paper towel off?

    Thanks so much

    • Kanako's husband said, on January 3, 2011 at 10:25 pm

      Just to be clear, you take the paper towell dome off first – then you spoon sauce over the fish! I edited the main post to clarify.

  3. Musica Nlalma said, on September 3, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    Hi Kanako 😀
    what brand of sake and soy sauce do you recommend? there are so much to choose from and i really want to use the best or what you use. thx 🙂

  4. kanako said, on October 5, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    the brand of cooking sake is Shirakiku and soy sauce brand is Kikkoman. They are fine and easy to find. I don’t use low sodium soy sauce.

  5. Dominika said, on April 20, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Hello Kanako,

    Could I could a whole mackerel this way? Is it necessary to filet it and cook pieces of it?
    Thank you. Your blog is fantastic.

  6. Michelle said, on July 27, 2013 at 8:39 am

    Hi Kanako! I recently discovered your wonderful blog. This recipe is extremely delicious and has become a new favorite. I have two rather naive questions but I’m going to ask them anyway. Do you eat the skin? And do you remove the bones when you fillet the mackerel? Or do you just eat around them? As you can tell I am new to eating fish! But with recipes like this I could start to eat it every day 🙂

    • Kanako said, on July 29, 2013 at 12:02 pm

      Hi Michelle,
      thank you for your comment.
      I sometimes eat the skin and sometimes not. When it seems too greasy I avoid it, but if not, I eat it. And I took away the spine when I fillet the mackerel but leave the small borns because it is too much work for me and I took them away while eating. However, if the small borns doesn’t bother me, I eat them, too.

      When I have extra time and energy after cleaning the fish, I fry the spine apart as a snack. Just sprinkle the flour and salt and fry it. It’s crunchy and delicious.

      • Michelle said, on July 29, 2013 at 6:12 pm

        Thanks for responding! Next time I will eat the skin and fry the spine as you suggest. “Fish fries”…with pleasure! For this recipe I went down the youtube rabbit hole watching videos on how to gut and fillet mackerel. They make it look so easy! Even removing the bones takes them only 10 seconds. Someday. For now thank you for giving me permission to leave the bones in 🙂

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