6 Types of Japanese Fish Sauces & How To Use Them

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Japanese fish sauce

Japanese fish sauces (“gyosho”) are bottled condiment sauces with a distinctive smell and strong salty, umami flavor. They are manufactured by fermenting fish with salt in varying proportions and from varied sources.

Three great Japanese fish sauces which are very well known are shottsuru, ishiru and ikanago shoyu. Additionally, other specialist fish sauces are becoming increasingly popular and sought after, including ayu, kitayori and eel noh.

Historically, they used to be ubiquitous in Japan, but they fell out of fashion after the introduction of soy sauce and have only recently started to be produced again. 

The ingredients are mixed together and left to ferment for a period of months or years. They are then pressed, filtered and aged. Each type of fish sauce has a different fermentation and aging period.

While they can all be relied upon to provide a hefty dose of umami, suggested uses are different for each one. Every fish sauce has its own flavor profile.

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1. Shottsuru

Shottsuru is the best known Japanese fish sauce of all.

Nihonmono writes that shottsuru originated in the early Edo period and was first made for private use by Daimon Sukeuemon. It was first made commercially in 1895.

According to T. Ohshima and A. Giri, in an Encyclopedia of Food Microbiology (Second Edition), 2014, shottsuru can be made from hatahata (sailfin sandfish), Japanese sardines, anchovies, mackerel, or a mixture. To the fish flesh is added 10% mysids, a type of small, shrimp-like crustacean, and salt, usually in a ratio of 3:1 or 7:2. The mix was traditionally allowed to ferment and break down in earthenware pots; in modern manufacturing plants, wooden or cement tanks are more commonly used.

However, true artisan shottsuru is fermented exclusively from hatahata in the Oga peninsula in Akita, and is renowned for being extremely mild, due to its containing only white fish, and to the long fermentation and aging period.

2. Ishiru

Ishiru is also sometimes spelled “ishiri” or “yoshiru”. Its name is a portmanteau of “io” (fish) and “shiru” (soup).

Noto’s Satoyama and Satoumi Digital Archive writes that the east coast typically uses squid liver to make ishiru. The website Ishiri.jp, dedicated to the fish sauce, speculates that the variant spellings suggest a direct translation of “soup with extra amount of fish”, and that ishiri / yoshiri were originally associated with the east coast of the Noto peninsula, which typically uses the viscera of sardines, leading to an even stronger flavor.

Both coasts ferment the fish with 30% salt (about four parts fish to one part salt) for between seven and nine months. The resulting liquid is then strained, boiled, filtered and cooled.

The usage of viscera in particular means that ishiru has a stronger, more pungent flavor and smell.

3. Ikanago shoyu

The name of ikanago shoyu comes firstly from “ikanago”,  the name of a small, thin, silvery fish usually called a “sand lance” or “sand eel” in English, and secondly from “shoyu”: the word for soy sauce.

Ikanago shoyu is thus distinguished by being a fish sauce to use soy sauce in place of salt to ferment the fish, in the ratio of two parts ikanago to one part shoyu.

This fish sauce is made in the Kagawa prefecture of Japan, and according to Kensanpin, who sell seasonal local products, ikanago are caught in the Bisan area on the Seto Inland sea in the late winter and spring. Despite the English name, they’re not actually a true eel, but part of the ammodytes family of fish.

Because of the use of soy sauce, ikanago shoyu has a flavor profile closer in nature to soy sauce, meaning it’s often considered an “easy” or beginners’ option for those who are nervous about pungency.

4. Ayu

Ayu fish sauce, made in the city of Hita in Oita Prefecture from freshwater fish, takes its name from the fish used to make it, the ayu sweetfish.

The One Kyushu Project writes that it was developed when local fish farmers consulted with the soy brewery Maruhara about how to make use of irregular ayu fish.

Ayu fish sauce is especially esteemed by overseas chefs, including a three-star Michelin restaurant in France.

5. Eel noh 

The fish sauce was created by the Atsumi processing factory, on the suggestion of Toshio Marusaki from the Umi Mirai Research Institute.

He learned that eel heads were an unused waste product in their factory, and Atsumi proposed using them to make eel fish sauce in Ichibiki. Manufacture began in 2020, and eel noh by Atsumi has already won an award from the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

6. Kitayori

An extremely limited production fish sauce, Kitayori is made by TSO in the city of Tomakomai.

It is manufactured by fermenting shellfish with koji and salt, and is the only fish sauce managed by the Tomakomai Fisheries Association in Hokkaido.

What is the history of fish sauce in Japan?

Fermented fish sauces were originally introduced to Asia from the Roman empire via the Silk Road, Laura Kelley writes in The Silk Road Gourmet. 

According to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, they were first brought to Japan from China and used as a method of preservation, especially in mountainous areas where fresh seafood was hard to come by. But as soy sauce began to be more widely used as seasoning, fish sauces fell out of fashion, and were used increasingly less. 

In recent years, there has been a revival of traditional Japanese fish sauces. This new dawn has been led by the brewery Moroi Jouzoujo in Akita, who added fish sauce to their production in the 1990s, with the Japan Times crediting Hideki Moroi, the President of the brewery with “single-handedly” reviving interest in the product.

Artisans all over Japan have been inspired by his success to revisit ancestral recipes and techniques of their regions and within the last thirty years, Japanese fish sauces have become highly valued again. 

How did Japanese fish sauces develop differently from those of other countries?

Japanese fish sauce is usually milder than fish sauces of other countries. According to the online food encyclopedia, CooksInfo, Japanese consumers don’t like the very strong fishy smell of fermented fish sauce from other countries, and Japanese fish sauces have been refined accordingly.

For example, Hideki Moroi, President of Moroi Jouzoujo says that their shottsuru has been designed to have an extremely mild taste and smell, unlike the odorous nam pla and nước chấm of southeast Asia. Even those who strongly dislike a fishy taste or smell recognize how easy it is to eat.

What are the most popular Japanese fish sauce brands?

The most popular fish sauce brands nationally are those that have successfully managed to market their products outside of the hyperlocal manufacturing regions. Some of the most notable include:  

  • Shottsuru by Moroi Jozo

Aged for at least three years, deep richness and taste, gentle aroma. Ten-year vintage also produced for an even milder taste.

  • Ayu fish sauce by Hara Jirozaemon / Maruhara

Intensely flavorful, amber, deep and magical essence, rich, complex aroma. Award winner from the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

  • Noto ishiru by Kaneishi Maru

Secret seasoning, aged for two years. From the Okunuto region at the tip of the Noto peninsula.

  • Ika ishiru by Yamato

Intense squid flavor, full-bodied, extra rich. West coast Ishiru, one-year brewing process.

  • Furato no ishi by Flatts

Natural umami seasoning. Certified by the Executive Committee of the World Agricultural Heritage as a “Noto” dish.

  • Eel noh by Atsumi

Strong umami, versatile, deep flavor. Exceptionally mild due to freshwater fish.

What is the best Japanese fish sauce?

Shottsuru from Moroi Jozo in Akita is the most renowned artisan fish sauce in Japan, as well as the most widely available. This brewery has been producing fish sauce for the longest period, meaning that they have refined and perfected their technique.

In her book on Japanese preservation, Nancy Singleton Hachisu writes that Moroi Jozo is considered the top maker; additionally it has been designated by Slow Food as an Ark of Flavor product and recognized as a World Heritage food.

Limited edition vintage ten year shottsuru from Moroi Jozo is described as the ultimate fish sauce. 

Many other brands also manufacture premium aged fish sauces. Superb vintages can be found at many locations, although these can often be difficult to find outside of Japan, or even outside of their local regions. Some fish sauces are sold only in small-batch, unlabeled bottles by older people hawking their wares at morning markets.

Does Japanese food use fish sauce?

Yes, fish sauce is used in a lot of Japanese food. After falling out of fashion as soy sauce became increasingly popular, the last thirty years has seen a revival in ancestral fermented fish sauces and increased interest in their culinary uses.

In contrast to the fish sauces of other countries, Japanese fish sauces are used very sparingly as a way of adding umami and depth without introducing a fishy taste. Japanese dishes should never be overpowered with fish sauce; indeed for the most part, if used correctly, you should not even notice the flavor.

Do you use fish sauce in ramen?

Yes, fish sauce is a very common addition to ramen. 

The intense umami flavor of Japanese fish sauces makes them a perfect flavor for the savory broths that ramen are cooked in. Many Japanese chefs will use them to build flavor during the cooking process and they are also commonly brought to the table where diners can add an additional few drops as seasoning.

What other dishes do the Japanese use fish sauce in?

All fish sauces can be used instead of soy sauce as seasoning for sashimi and sushi, or to add savor and umami flavor to any type of dish at all.

Many types of nabe (hot pot) commonly contain fish sauces. Nancy Singleton Hachisu suggests splashing it into beef shabu-shabu. Shottsuru-nabe, a hot pot dish containing sandfish, is a prominent local dish in Akita that is made using shottsuru.

All types of fresh seasonal fish in Akita are also commonly eaten with shottsuru as a condiment.

Hideki Moroi suggests trying shottsuru as a sauce for yakisoba fried noodles, or as a coating for onigiri rice balls, or as a subtle seasoning in curry and rice or rolled omelets.

Shellfish boiled with fish and vegetables in ishiru is a local specialty in Ishikawa. The Japanese cooking channel MisoSoup also suggests using ishiru in place of soy sauce to deglaze the wok after making fried rice.

Naoko Takei Moore of the speciality Japanese store Toiro in Los Angeles suggests using ayu fish sauce with steamed chicken or fish, or in a pork keema curry.

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Caroline first opened the doors to her own apartment in Berlin to guests, which was soon sold out. She then became the head chef of Muse Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg, for eight years, renowned for “international comfort food.”