How Mackerel Heshiko-Narezushi is Made

Hiraku Ogura

October 28, 2022

Last October, American food professionals visited fermented food producers to deepen their knowledge of Japanese fermentation culture during the “Hakko Tourism in Japan” tour campaign. As part of the tour, organizers held a tasting session where guests gave candid advice from the perspective of the American market to food product manufacturers looking to enter the United States market.

Mackerel fishing was once popular in the village of Tagarasu in Obama City, Fukui Prefecture, located in the depths of Wakasa Bay.

A large amount of mackerel caught during the season is made into heshiko (pickled in rice-bran paste), and the heshiko is further processed into narezushi, which is used as an ingredient for special occasions such as the New Year.

Here in Wakasa Bay, Japan’s best sea fermentation technique has been passed down, and you can’t help but marvel at how much effort it takes.

Map of Japan

Tagarasu District, Obama City, Fukui Prefecture

When you think of the Sea of Japan, you think of rich and delicious seafood! However, if you visit Tagarasu during the cold season, you’ll see a scene like one in a daytime drama of an unpopular beach flooded with rough waves that go “bam!” and spread their lovely scenery.

The weather in the Sea of Japan in the Hokuriku region is unstable, and although Tagarasu is also rich in seafood, it seems that it was not possible to go fishing as much as I wanted.

The fact that the fishing season is short means that we have to efficiently process the fish that can be caught in a large amount in a short period of time into preserved food and survive the harsh winter. It is from here that mackerel heshiko technology developed.

By soaking the fish in salt and rice bran, it prevents contamination from bacteria and removes moisture to increase the shelf life.

Plus, the flavor is concentrated and delicious. This alone is wonderful, but in the Tagarasu village, it doesn’t stop at heshiko; it becomes narezushi!

I visited the manufacturing site at Minshuku Sasuke near the beach.

How to make heshiko-narezushi

Mackerel Heshiko-Narezushi
Let’s start with the heshiko-making process. The mackerel is gutted, opened, and pre-marinated in salt for several days. Next, it is pickled in a bed of rice bran and salt (or red pepper in some cases), weighted down firmly, and aged for about a year. Next, we start the narezushi process. Heshiko is taken out, washed, stuffed with rice, and then marinated in a barrel filled with rice for several weeks to make narezushi. Mackerel heshiko can be seen throughout the Hokuriku region, but this is the first time I’ve seen heshiko-naresushi. I asked Mr. Morishita of Minshuku Sasuke, “Why do you do this when it’s so much work?” He told me, “It was a New Year’s offer to the gods.” In this area, mackerel is a symbol of a bountiful catch. This episode shows that sushi was originally associated with Shinto rituals. Heshiko-narezushi takes more than a year if you count from pickling. It was a special food prepared for gods from the previous year.
Rice being steamed in the bamboo container on the top of the stove
Let’s recap this heshiko-narezushi. Despite the fact that the raw fish is fermented for nearly a year and a half, there is no odor and a moderate amount of fat remains. When you take a bite, the soft taste of the mackerel, the concentrated richness of the heshiko, and the deep acidity of the narezushi triangulate perfectly to lock on to your taste buds. It was so delicious that I fell to my knees!

This article was originally published in Gekkan Fu, Fukui Shimbunsha and on Fupo, Fu Production.

Hiraku Ogura | + posts

Hiraku Ogura is a fermentation designer and founder of Hakko Labo in Japan. With a background in fermentation science, he authored "Hakko Bunka Jinruigaku" to explore the cultural roots of Japan through the micro fermentation world. His innovative work pushes the boundaries of traditional knowledge in this ancient practice.