Cooking trout on a campfire – Shioyaki Style
We promote catch and release. Yet, I admit, I will occasionally eat fish when I’m out. Killing fish, and eating them seem to be a part of the human instinct. I’m a big believer that generally “a fish is too valuable to be caught only once”. But, I also try to avoid being a hypocrite. I eat meat, and I eat fish too, and there is no reason I should be able to do it only if bought from a market where the act of killing and the connection that brings to the food you’re about to eat are outsourced to the fishmonger.
But, in order to reconcile my love for sport fishing, and my desire to eat the occasional fish, over the years I have come up with a rule of thumb for the occasions I’ll allow myself to take a fish’s life and eat it: stocked fish or places that I’m fairly certain see less than one angler a week, or where there is a clearly huge abundance of small (8-9″ fish).I never feel very pleased when killing a fish. It’s not a good feeling. I still feel a need to say “thank you” every time I do take a fish’s life. However, I have realized that every time I do keep a fish I feel that I look at them at a different way, as a source of sustenance and I greatly respect them for it. The fish is no longer a “toy” to play with, but a life, a being. But, well, enough of that, I can get very philosophical about it.To humanely kill a fish we want it to be done quickly, so the fish is not suffering.
Typically if I intend to keep a fish for dinner I will wait to keep the fish I catch near the end of the day. And, then I kill the fish immediately after catching them. I really do not like the idea of keeping them alive in the water through a stringer or other medium to keep them “fresher” – they will be plenty fresh still. The best way I have found to kill a fish so far is to insert a sharp knife through the back of the head/”neck” to sever the spine. This tends to be the quickest way in my experience. To carry a fish back to camp, I use whatever grasses or small branches I find nearby (pic below). I insert the grasses or small branch through the mouth and gill. If I’m fishing back to camp, I’ll put it in the water, in a secure small pool, just to keep the fish fresh. Otherwise, I cover it with large leaves.At camp, I will cook them over a fire, normally by skewering it. I cook it “shioyaki” style, which is only sea-salt on the skin of the fish (shio means salt,yaki is grilled). This is a way I learned to appreciate the fish for its own flavor on my first visit to Japan, when, while visiting the town of Nikko (close to some spectacular waterfalls), I saw a street food vendor carrying a cart with a fire ring and several fish on skewers around this fire, like candied apples. They had only sea-salt on the skin, were about 8-9″ long and were the most delicious fish ever. In Japan they say the fish in that 8-9″ range are “shioyaki size”, and I find that to be the perfect size and about the only size I will keep. I release the bigger fish to procreate, and the smaller ones to live longer and provide more sport. I show a little bit of that in this video.
And, yes, I do gut the fish. There are many ways of cleaning a fish. But, I have become a fan of gutting it without opening the fish. I had heard about this way of cleaning fish several years ago from a Japanese friend of mine. And, when I spent a couple of months in Japan I wanted to learn and try mastering the technique. It takes a fair amount of practice, and I’m still not nearly as quick as I wish to be.I find this preserves the shape of the fish really well. In a way it preserves its integrity.
With trout it is not necessary to remove the scales, but I do (simply pass a knife in the opposite direction of the fish scales). This makes the sea-salt stick to the trout skin better. Once the fish is cooked around a fire, on a skewer, I will eat the fish directly off the skewer. And, I do eat the skin.
For skewering the fish it takes some technique. You want to find a straight and hard branch, about the diameter of a pencil, and sharpen the end. I typically like long skewers, about 25″ long, so I can adjust how far it will be from the fire and not burn my hand when handling it. Insert the skewer through the eye or mouth of the fish, staying on top of the fish (where the flesh is). Then zig-zag the skewer, touching the skin of the fish on the side before turning it to the other side and proceeding all the way to the tail. You do not want to puncture the skin (it will make the skewer burn and the fish will look uglier. Also, here’s something interesting I learned in Japan. For aesthetic purposes when the fish is served on a plate, you want it to face to the left of the guest who is looking at it (head to the left, tail on the right). I can’t explain it why, but indeed it does look quite different when facing right. With that in mind, if you’re skewering the fish through the eye (more secure than through the mouth), you want to make sure to insert the skewer through the right eye (the side that the guest wouldn’t see if he had the fish in front of him). It may be silly, but I have taken this step quite seriously after learning it.
Once the fish is on the skewer, you’ll salt the fish. Simply sprinkle sea salt pretty liberally only on the outside of the fish. You want a very light layer of salt to cover it. And, put quite a bit of extra salt on the fins and head. The extra salt will keep the fins from easily burning. It will also help make the fins seem like a crunchy salty snack. It may take a little practice to know how much salt you want on it as that is a personal preference, but I like quite a bit of salt.
The fire should have been built earlier. Built a large fire in the beginning, pretty large indeed, and let it all kind of burn down. You want hot coals, not necessarily a flaming fire when cooking it.
And, finally, prop the skewer around a fire. If there is soft ground around it, insert the end away from the fish onto the ground. If you’re car-camping, you may even want to try a shioyaki log like this one that fly-fishing author Dave Hughes made when I went camping with him.
This is usually a tricky aspect of the whole thing as you’ll always need to figure out the best way to prop your fish, and every fire ring will be different. You’ll rotate it a few times while cooking it, but as the last commercial tenkara angler, Mr. Bunpei Sonehara indicates here, “grill fresh water fish with belly side facing the fire”. I start with the belly facing the fire, but will also make sure to expose each side to the fire too.
And, lastly, after I eat the fish right off my skewer, I’ll grill the bones a little and drink kotsuzake – to do this, grill the left over bones (or bones and head) slightly. Then, immerse the bones in warm sake (which you can let warm by the fire). The sake will have a slight fish flavor to it. It will warm your soul as it gives you a chance to honor your day’s experience and the fish you just ate.