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.
Named after the golden red color of the autumn leaves by the Tatsuta River near Nara, as evoked in a famous poem dating from 9th century, Saba Tatsuta-age is a wonderful recipe to try when you manage to secure high quality mackerel (‘Saba’ in Japanese), whether fresh or frozen.
Though traditionally prized for the delicious taste you get when you seal in all of the fish fat, this method of cooking has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts as scientists have increasingly identified the health benefits of essential nutrients such as Omega-3, which are plentiful in mackerel and other blue-backed fish.
A secondary, but not inconsiderable, advantage is that this way of cooking mostly attenuates the strong, fishy-smell that’s typical of Blue-Backed fish. The result is a succulent fish dinner that’s nutritionally outstanding without the overpowering fishy taste you get from other ways of cooking mackarel.