This picture features two of the delicacies that are symbols of Shizuoka city’s gastronomy: Sakura Ebi (cherry blossom shrimps) and Shirasu (whitebait).
I had a hard time finding truly fresh ones during my recent short stay in Shizuoka City. As a matter of fact, for both species, autumn 2017 catches have been very low, creating an issue for professionals and consumers alike.
Unusual phenomena have been affecting the area, starting with dreadful weather in October.
The field is Suruga Bay, on the Pacific coast of Honshu, the area located North of the imaginary line joining the tip of the Izu Peninsula and Omaezaki Point, a cape that marks the most Southern point on the coastline of Shizuoka Prefecture.
I read that the reason why there is such a concentration of Sakura Ebi in Suruga Bay is still a bit of a mystery. While the specie can be found in other places in Japan (and overseas), Shizuoka is the only Prefecture where it is exploited, because of the exceptional size of the shrimp’s population. This very small shrimp (no more than 4-5 cm) lives for about a year only, in dense aggregations floating between layers of deep waters, rather than crawling on the bottom of the sea. Its name comes from its pink color comparable to cherry blossom. Its exploitation only started about 130 years ago, after the net of a fishing boat sank deep into the bay after a handling error by the boat master, but subsequently lifted an exceptional catch, revealing an unsuspected natural resource.
Suruga Bay is a unique underwater structure on the map of Japan, the deepest and the steepest. Mount Fuji actually rises in close to a straight line from its bottom (-2,500 meters) to the volcano’s summit (at almost 3,800 meters of altitude). Major rivers flowing from Mount Fuji and Southern Alps (Oi, Abe, Okitsu, Fuji…) contribute huge volumes of pure, fresh water, and their submarine beds shape a maze of underwater valleys in the bay. More than the geology of the place (the point where two tectonic plates are colliding, and not far from the border with the Pacific one), it may actually be a very specific population of plankton living in that environment that explains why the shrimp population is thriving. Shrimps are changing depth in tandem with underwater light during the day, and clearly the dreadful October weather may have affected their behavior…and the fishermen’s activity. While it was ruining our week-ends, it prevented them form taking the sea and typhoons 21 and 22 are responsible for damages to their equipment.
(home made Kaki-age)
As a result, the autumn catch (fishing is only allowed a few months per year) started significantly below the usual levels. Kaki-age, a tempura of Sakura Ebi and herbs is my no less than my favorite dish in Japanese cuisine, it was time I gave a bit of background about its main ingredient.
Shirasu (whitebait) is a collective term for young, immature fish (anchovies, herrings, sardines…) traveling in large schools. Kuroshio is an ocean current flowing toward the Northeast near the Eastern shores of Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu islands of Japan. It plays a very important role for the Japanese marine life (and therefore the fishing fleet), as it transports a variety of marine species migrating between climate zones. It happens that for the first time in 12 years, a great meander formed in Kuroshio. Water started to flow toward the East, covering a distance of more than 300 kilometers, away from the tip of the Kii Peninsula (the large peninsula South East of Osaka, known as Wakayama, Nara and Mie Prefectures), “avoiding” the coasts of Mie, Aichi and Shizuoka Prefectures. An eddy has formed near the shoreline in that region, with water flowing counterclockwise near Suruga Bay (toward the Southwest). The cause for such meander remains unknown, but historical records reveal that past great meanders resulted in record-low fish-catches, affecting Shirasu in particular.
The third delicacy on the top photo is Ikura (salmon eggs). At this time of the year wild one often comes from Hokkaido. There as well, catches have been very low. October weather has played a role, however some specialists already point at the rise in sea water temperatures, which trigger changes in behavioral patterns.
No shortage of sake (yet) thankfully. Shizuoka sake was not particularly known until about 30 years ago. The Research center of the Prefecture developed a new type of sake yeast around that time, to produce aromatic ginjos that soon attracted attention at the annual national New Sake Competition. To be enjoyed with Sakura Ebi, Shirasu and Ikura in season.