All about jakoten and how to eat this delicious dish
Have you heard about jakoten and are now wondering what these cakes are? I can relate because they are very delicious.
Jakoten (じゃこ天), pronounced jack-o-ten, is a Japanese specialty deep-fried food from the Ehime prefecture, made from local harambo fish. It is made from other small minced fish as well like silverfish, horse mackerel, and goatfish now that it is becoming more popular outside of the city of Yawatahama.
In this article, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about Jakoten, including its history and cultural significance, and its nutritional benefits.
If you like fish and seafood, then this fish paste dish is a must-try.
I promise that once you taste jakoten, you’ll want to keep including it in your favorite Japanese recipes like curry, soups, and rice bowls.
In this post we'll cover:
- 1 What is jakoten?
- 2 Types of jakoten
- 3 People always ask, why is jakoten so special?
- 4 Is jakoten healthy?
- 5 Origin of jakoten
- 6 How is jakoten made?
- 7 How to eat jakoten and what popular dishes jakoten is used in
- 8 Is jakoten a kamaboko (fish cake)?
- 9 Takeaway
What is jakoten?
Jakoten (じゃこ天), pronounced jack-o-ten, is a fried fish cake or patty made from local harambo fish.
Initially, this food was called “zako-ten,” which is Japanese for “small fish.” Over time it was adapted to “jako-ten.”
Actually, it is one of Japan’s best-kept fish cake secrets. It is uncommon outside of Japan, and especially outside the city of Yawatahama. The locals of Ehime prefecture have been eating deep-fried harambo fish paste for centuries.
Jakoten is made from small minced fish, mainly harambo (firefly fish). However, other types of smaller fish species are used too, including silverfish, horse mackerel, and goatfish.
First, the heads, viscera, and any scales are removed, after which the fish is minced and ground whole.
The resulting paste is placed in a rectangular mold and then deep-fried in canola oil. I’ll go into a bit more detail later on about the specifics of making jakoten.
The interesting thing is that jakoten has a unique texture. Since the minced fish paste is very soft, it takes on a chewy texture once it’s deep-fried in canola oil. It becomes chewy, not crunchy, with a distinctly fishy taste.
Types of jakoten
All kinds of jakoten have a similar flavor. There is some disparity depending on the type of fish the patty is made from.
- Harambo jakoten is the classic version. Made from small firefly fish, it has a powerful, rich fishy flavor. The bones are slightly crunchy, but the overall texture of the patty is soft and chewy. This type of jakoten contains MOSTLY harambo fish and a small quantity of other fish.
- Mukashi-zukuri jakoten is a blend of fish. It is made with a minced fish paste made of different types of small fish and has a very rich taste.
- Jako-katsu is also jakoten but it is eaten like a katsu. Thus, it’s served with special katsu sauce, which is a curry-like dip.
People always ask, why is jakoten so special?
Well, the locals will tell you that it all comes down to the fish.
Harambo (firefly fish) is a fish species that is commonly found in the Uwajiama Sea. This part of Japan is thought to be the best fishing grounds in the country.
The sea is home to many healthy fish populations, including harambo and other small fish used in the making of jakoten.
But jakoten is one of the most popular snacks in the region. Kids and adults both love jakoten, and they have it a couple of times a week as a snack between meals.
These days, jakoten comes in a few variations with different seasonings.
For more seafood deliciousness, try this Seafood Teppanyaki Recipe from the chef
Is jakoten healthy?
Normally, you don’t associate deep-fried foods with the term healthy. However, jakoten is a nutritious and healthy snack even though it’s fried.
The fish is nutritious because it’s full of calcium, minerals, and healthy protein. Since the fish bones are minced, too, the dish retains the nutrients from the bones.
Fish is a good source of omega 3 fatty acids, especially DHA and EPA. The fatty acids help contribute to a healthy cardiovascular system and calm inflammation in the body.
Jakoten is made with all kinds of small fish coming in from Yawatahama port, and the waters are full of plankton, so the fish come from a relatively clean and healthy sea.
Origin of jakoten
Jakoten has a long and tasty history. Fish was always one of Japan’s main food sources since the country is surrounded by water.
It’s believed that Jakoten actually started with a daimyo – or Japanese feudal lord named Date Hidemune.
Daimyos were wealthy magnates and lords who ruled their lands on behalf of the local shogun and the emperor. Date Hidemune was the local lord of Ehime Prefecture.
In 1614 (Edo period), he ordered his chefs to prepare a tasty steamed fish paste recipe. These pastes, with different seasonings, were so popular that the cooks started to experiment by deep-frying them too.
This is how Jakoten came to be such a tasty fish dish and an Uwajima delicacy.
How is jakoten made?
The key to tasty jakoten is high-quality fish. Jakoten is traditionally made from minced harambo fish. This small white fish, also known as Hotarujako, has a small body and very small minceable bones.
Jakoten was traditionally made with hand tools, but these days, it’s made in a factory with professional equipment. Some local “craftsmen” still make jakoten by hand and use a traditional stone mortar to grind up the fish, with bones and all.
Here is how jakoten is manufactured:
- The small fish is first cleaned.
- They remove the head, viscera, and any scales.
- All of the rest of the fish, including bones, are ground up and minced into a fine paste.
- The fish paste is seasoned.
- The fish paste is placed into special rectangular molds made of wood or plastic. This gives the cakes that specific rectangular shape with rounded edges. Since the fish paste is soft and doesn’t keep its shape, a mold is required.
- Each fish patty is deep-fried for several minutes in hot canola oil. The patties take on a brown color, much like aburaage (fried tofu pockets).
How to eat jakoten and what popular dishes jakoten is used in
Jakoten is usually sold fresh from the fryer, and Japanese people will line up to get it while it’s hot. You can also buy packaged jakoten in certain Japanese grocery shops.
If you want to taste the authentic fishy flavor of jakoten, you should try it hot out of the fryer. This way, you can eat it like a snack between meals.
Jakoten is best served with a soy sauce dip, ponzu sauce, grated daikon radish, and some grated ginger which adds a bit of spice.
Recently, people have started pairing jakoten with cheese. The melted cheese makes these fish cakes even tastier.
Grilled jakoten is another favorite dish. The best way to grill the jakoten patties is on a traditional shichirin grill.
The patty is grilled for a couple of minutes on each side or until the jakoten starts to turn dark brown/black, like grilled meat.
Are you looking for a shichirin grill? Check out my review of the best shichirin grills available.
You can also use jakoten in a variety of Japanese, Chinese, and Western foods. A tasty rice bowl benefits greatly from the soft, chewy texture of the fish-flavored jakoten.
Here’s a brief list of foods you can use jakoten in:
- Udon noodle soup (add as a topping)
- Any Japanese soup (you can use it as a substitute for abura-age)
- Udon noodle salad
- Nimono (a simmered dish where a base ingredient is simmered in shiru stock). You can simmer the jakoten fish patty in dashi broth.
- Donburi rice bowl
- Soba noodles
- Stir-fries (jakoten goes well with vegetable stir-fries as an alternative to chicken, beef, and pork).
- Japanese curry
Is jakoten a kamaboko (fish cake)?
Yes, jakoten is a type of fish cake.
In Japan, fish cakes are called kamaboko. This one is different from most other fish cakes because it is deep-fried. Most kamaboko is steamed, grilled, or boiled.
There are fried varieties too, but jakoten is quite a unique deep-fried one made of minced fish with bone.
Jakoten vs kamaboko
Kamaboko refers to a whole variety of Japanese fish cakes that can be steamed, grilled, fried, or boiled.
Usually, kamaboko is made of surimi, which refers to a paste made from minced fish (like pollock). You might be familiar with surimi as the base ingredient for imitation crab meat.
Jakoten is a type of kamaboko.
However, compared to other popular fish cakes like naruto kamaboko, which has frilled edges and a pink, white swirl in the middle, jakoten looks different.
Here are the two main differences:
- Jakoten is different from other kamaboko because the surimi is molded into a rectangular shape and deep-fried.
- The fish bones are minced, too, whereas, for most kamaboko, the bones are removed before grinding.
Jakoten vs surimi
Jakoten is made of a minced fish paste, so technically, it is surimi. As I mentioned before, surimi encompasses a large variety of fish pastes, and the ground-up small fish are also turned into a surimi paste.
The difference is that for this type of surimi, the bones are ground up too. Thus, the bottom line is that jakoten is a type of deep-fried surimi.
Jakoten is an important dish in the Matsuyama and the Uwajima region of Japan. The deep-fried kamaboko fish patty has been part of the local tradition for over four centuries.
That’s because it is nutritious and makes a great chewy fishy snack between meals.
So, the next time you want to try a unique Japanese fish delicacy, don’t skip out on jakoten, and if you’re already trying it, why not give jako-katsu a try too?
Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.