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TokyoTreat Japanese Snacks BlogShioyaki: An Odd But Tasty Street Food

Shioyaki: An Odd But Tasty Street Food

By terrell
May 28, 2022

Some street foods and festival foods seem to jump out at us with their delicious scents or appearance. Japanese crepes and yakisoba (Japanese fried noodles) usually excel in this area. However, for many foreigners, shioyaki (salted and grilled fish) just doesn’t jump out as an appealing dish, especially since it still has a face. 

That being said, if you can get past the initial shock factor, this Japanese street food can be a perfect snack, a nice stop between festival food stalls, or a delicious part of a sit-down meal. Let’s explore this odd yet tasty dish and all the ways to enjoy it.

What is Shioyaki?

To understand this popular street food from start to finish, you have to understand the dish in three ways: as a cooking method, as a sit-down food, and as a street food.

As a Cooking Technique: 

Shioyaki technically refers to a cooking method, even though nowadays, many people use it to mean the dish as well. Shio means ‘salt’, while yaki usually refers to ‘baking’ or ‘grilling’. Put them together and you get a perfect summary in one word. 

A plate of four pieces of saba shioyaki sits on a white table, with one of the four pieces being turned upward to show off the golden brown meat of the fish, with the other pieces showing off a crispy, salted skin.
Imagine this delicious dish with a side of rice, soup, pickled veggies, and other vegetables, and you’ll have a typical Japanese breakfast.

You see, salt is applied to fresh fish (sometimes even overnight) to both flavor the fish and prevent the fins and tails from overcooking and charring. Then, the fish is grilled to perfection usually over a charcoal grill or stove. In many ways, it’s similar to salt yakitori (skewered chicken). 

While shioyaki usually refers to river fish or saba (or mackerel), you can actually use the phrase for any fish you cook this way. But we’ll talk more about that later.

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As a Sit-Down Meal: 

We know what you’re thinking. You may not think of fish as a breakfast food, but for many Japanese folks, it is. That being said, shioyaki as a Japanese breakfast food is different from the type you see on the streets or at festivals. The breakfast (or any meal really) type is usually served plain, with the person picking off of the fish with chopsticks and leaving the bones on a plate.

As a Street Food

In this case, you can leave the chopsticks at home. This kind is skewered on a stick, being eaten on the go while walking around with friends or enjoying a festival with loved ones. 

Usually, they use fish whose bones become soft and edible when cooked, but if they don’t, you eat everything except the bones. You even eat the head too. But be warned, the belly is somewhat bitter due to the insides still being intact most of the time.

Types of Shioyaki

Between the dish and street versions of shioyaki, there are actually a variety of different fish that can be used for this Japanese street food.

A stall sells mochi on a stick and ayu shioyaki at a summer festival with a stall worker working in the back ground and another standing closer to camera.
It may seem strange to many foreigners, but seeing shioyaki next to mochi (Japanese pounded rice cakes) at a festival is normal in Japan. Image via Shutterstock

Saba

Saba shioyaki is very popular for those looking for a protein as part of a traditional Japanese meal. Actually, fun fact, unless you go to certain prefectures where it can be eaten almost straight from the ocean, saba is often salted to some extent. This fish is also commonly grilled, smoked, or broiled as it complements the flavor of the fish.

Salmon

Salmon is another common choice for the table version of this dish. This cooking method helps to make the skin nice and crispy and complements the soft meat perfectly. You may also see salmon shioyaki as a filling for onigiri (Japanese rice ball). 

Sea Bream

Sea Bream, or tai, is a fish that we usually associate with celebrations, thanks to both its name and its red and white appearance. That being said, this dish is most commonly enjoyed around Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year). The fish is rather large compared to the others on this list, so for fancier meals, it’s served whole. However, for foods like osechi-ryori (a traditional New Years dish), it’s often cut into smaller pieces. 

Ayu

Many sticks of ayu shioyaki sit around an old-style charcoal grill in a circle with the sticks stuck into the ash as the fish cook.
Although a more standard grill is used for cooking, some prefer to go the traditional route with open charcoal grill. Image via Shutterstock

Ayu (sweetfish) is the most popular fish for the street food version. Ayu actually has a naturally sweet flavor to it compared to other fish, hence the English name ‘sweetfish’. In fact, Ayu is often compared to melon in its sweetness and flavor. This natural sweetness pairs well with the salt used in shioyaki-style food, creating a salty but sweet flavor. 

These fish are smaller, so they can be skewered and carried around for on-the-go snacking. They are also usually skewered in such a way that they make a wave shape that makes it look like they are still swimming. The peak season to enjoy this fish is actually in the summer months (June to August), making it perfect for a festival treat.

Have you ever tried shioyaki-style food? Would you be able to eat it head and all? Let us know in the comments below!

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