Ikanago shoyu: Its Place Among Japanese Fish Sauces

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Ikanago shoyu

There are three especially famous types of Japanese fish sauce: shottsuru, ishiru, and ikanago shoyu. Many cultures have salty, fermented fish sauces among their condiments. Japan, as a nation with so much coastline and so many fish has refined this fermentation process to an artform.

In this article, we’re going to be focusing especially on ikanago shoyu, its origins, history, and culinary uses. 

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What does ikanago shoyu mean?

Ikanago is the name of a small, thin, silvery fish usually called a “sand lance” or “sand eel” in English. According to Kensanpin, who sell seasonal local products, they’re caught in the late winter and spring, both as plump adults, when the ikanago are about 10-12cm 4-4.8 inches) long, and also as baby small fry. Despite the English name, they’re not actually a true eel, but part of the Ammodytes family of fish.

Shoyu is the name given to Japanese soy sauces, which are typically lighter and thinner than Chinese soy sauces and contain only fermented soy beans, wheat, salt and water. 

Where and how did ikanago shoyu get developed?

Fermented fish sauces have a long and rich history in Japanese cuisine. Before soy sauce enjoyed widespread use in Japan, fish sauces were used to add savor, umami and depth to regional dishes. They were usually a hyper-local affair, fermented from what was available.

Ikanago fish are abundant in coastal areas of Japan and ikanago shoyu would originally have been developed as regional specialties, in more than one place at a time, as brewers experimented independently with different types of fish, fermentation methods, and with soy sauce as it became increasingly popular.

However these days, the main area where these fish are landed and ikanago shoyu is produced is the Bisan area on the Seto Inland Sea.

How is ikanago shoyu made?

T. Ohshima and A. Giri say in their Encyclopedia of Food Microbiology (Second Edition, 2014) that Ikanago shoyu is made from around two parts ikanago to one part shoyu.

The fish is mixed together with the shoyu and left to ferment for at least 100 days before the liquid is extracted and filtered. Here’s the science bit: the enzymes produced by the fermenting bacteria break down and hydrolyze the fish protein, resulting in free amino acids and peptides.

Don’t worry if you didn’t understand that: all you need to know is that’s what gives ikanago shoyu its distinctive, deeply savory, briny and umami flavor.  

How is ikanago shoyu different from other Japanese fish sauces?

If you’re a fish sauce beginner, you might have felt a bit intimidated the first time you popped the lid off a bottle of ikanago shuyo and had a sniff. It’s true, Japanese fish sauces do have a real fishy pungency to them, and even people who love them will agree that they rarely smell or taste good directly from the bottle.

Ikanago shoyu has a higher concentration of salt than in most Japanese fermented fish sauces. This means it’s usually both more salty and less “fishy” tasting than others. You’re still not going to want to swig it neat, but if you’re just wanting to dip a careful toe into these fishy waters at first, ikanago shoyu might just be the one to go for.

If it’s so stinky, remind me why I want to eat it at all?

Ikanago shoyu isn’t designed to be used as a main ingredient. Like all Japanese fish sauces, it’s a condiment. That doesn’t mean you use it like ketchup either, squirting it around with abandon, but that you very carefully use small amounts to add a deep umami taste and richness of flavor. It could be even just a single drop.

If you’ve used your ikanago shoyu correctly, you won’t taste any of that pungent stink in the finished dish. Instead, you’ll be rewarded with a depth and complexity of flavor, and maybe just the tiniest hint of a briny whiff of the sea.

Learning how to use ikanago shoyu

Because the higher salt concentration and the use of soy sauce makes ikanago shoyu closer in flavor profile to a powerfully flavored soy sauce itself, perhaps the best way to start with it is to try using it in places where you would normally use a little soy sauce.

You’re probably familiar with using a drop or two of soy sauce as seasoning on your sashimi, or in a dipping sauce for sushi. Try using a little ikanago shoyu instead. Like soy sauce, its strong flavor will drown out the delicate fish if you use too much, so go very easy. Start just with a half a drop, and increase slowly, bite by bite. As soon as you’re noticing fishiness or saltiness, that’s too much. After a few tries, you’ll be able to pinpoint the moment when you’ve used the ikanago shoyu to maximize flavor without taking over. 

If you’re not so much of a fan of sushi, you can try the same experiment in a simple soup or broth. Add a small drop to your spoon and note how it increases the subtlety and depth of flavor. It’s not so much that it adds a new taste as that it enhances and deepens what’s already there.

Getting started: what can we use ikanago shoyu for?

You can use it as a natural flavor enhancer for almost any savory dish. Anywhere where you’d like to add a little salt, or where you’re thinking the taste is just a little lacking or flat? Ikanago shoyu will pep that flavor right up. 

It’s very good with noodle broths. Or perhaps you’ve got a bowl of ramen, but no exciting toppings? Add a dash of ikanago shoyu to liven it up.

Getting more creative: fish sauce with meat

What about using ikanago shoyu in a marinade for meat? It’s not as strange as it first sounds: anchovies and fish sauces have been used together with meat for centuries in the West as well. Worcestershire Sauce is a fermented fish sauce; Provençale anchoïade pounds anchovies together with oil and garlic and slathers it over braised lamb. 

Try mixing a little ikanago shoyu with oil, crushed garlic, and some yuzu juice and using it as a marinade for steak. Or add it to the juices of a slow-cooked nikujaga to give your meat and potatoes even more vitality.

Ikanago shoyu as a glaze and dipping sauce

We all know the shiny joy of a grilled salmon steak brushed with a sweet-savory glaze. Put a little ikanago shoyu in your glaze mix when you’re reducing it down for a little extra taste of the sea. Brush it over the salmon at regular intervals while grilling, and serve with the extra glaze as a dipping sauce.

It works with chicken too. An orange and ginger glaze is especially good with chicken, and the addition of ikanago shoyu only makes it better.

Getting advanced

You’ve probably already noticed a theme to these suggestions: a little ikanago shoyu mixed with other liquids or flavors, to bring out the natural brightness and delicacy of your main ingredients. 

It’s a great addition to a Wafu salad dressing, which will go well with just about any salad – just substitute some of the soy sauce with ikanago shoyu. Or you can draw on the influences of China and try a version with sesame oil and sesame seeds in a classic Chuka dressing for a cucumber salad.

And the saltiness of ikanago shoyu makes it a great choice for any savory preserve. Pickles and marinades will all shine with just that little more zestiness and pep. 

Try the recipe below to get started on your journey with Japanese fish sauces.

Recipe: Mushrooms pickled with ginger and ikanago shoyu

1 lb mixed mushrooms, e.g. shimeji, shiitake, enoki, oyster mushrooms

1 piece of ginger, about the size of your little finger

1 tbsp peanut or sesame oil

2 tbsp dashi stock

1 tbsp mirin (or for a richer flavor, substitute with red wine)

1 tbsp ikanago shoyu

2 tbsp rice wine vinegar

(Optional: 1 tsp sugar, especially if using red wine instead of mirin)

Tear or slice the mushrooms into bite-sized pieces. Cut the ginger into thin slices – no need to peel it. Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat and sauté the mushrooms and ginger until wilted and just starting to brown at the edges.

Meanwhile, mix all the other ingredients together. 

When the mushrooms are ready, pour the pickling mix over them, and keep cooking just for a minute or two more, until the alcohol has burnt off.

Remove from the heat and pour the mushrooms along with the pickling liquid into a container, pushing them down gently so as many as possible are submerged. Leave to cool, cover and refrigerate. They are ready to eat immediately, or will keep for at least a few days in the fridge.

Pro tip: Once you’ve eaten the mushrooms, there’s no reason to throw away the liquid. Use it as a highly flavored seasoning for a soup, in a salad dressing, as a dipping sauce, etc.

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