Nice people rock.
The other day, I got back to my office after a meeting to find a package of dried sardines sitting on my desk. They were from a coworker, who later told me he’d recently taken a trip to Japan; his mother-in-law served these at a dinner, and while eating them he asked “Hey, do you happen to have any more packs of these things? There’s a guy I work with who was looking for them not long ago.”
I’ve been looking for Tatami Iwashi for about 4 years now. It sounds, from my friend’s account, that these aren’t terribly exotic in Japan, but have proven to be exceedingly difficult for me to find stateside. A few months ago, I gave up and decided to just try making my own. Having been gifted a pack of the Real Thing (and extremely hesitant to take a Gentleman’s B on my last attempt), I made it again. Lest anyone else find themselves traveling down a path that requires they intersect with this incredible ingredient…here ya go.
I can’t say that I regret having tried making my own. Not only did I learn quite a bit about using Transglutaminase, but there’s an interesting difference between a dried sardine sheet and a glued sheet of baby anchovies.
The true Tatami Iwashi uses no meat glue; it’s quite brittle, and the individual fish are thinner and longer. Rolling them around a dowel before frying them into shape required several spritzes of water to soften the sheet, but the moistening also causes the fish to ‘unstick’ themselves from each other a little, so I had to find a balance with how much water to spray on them.
They were also ‘stickier’ than the Anchovy experiment…I had a hard time getting them to release from the wooden rod after the frying step. I ended up destroying about 1/4 of the cylinders I made; the sheets are more delicate than the glued versions. I had a curious thought halfway through about mixing a slush of transglutaminase and spraying the sardine sheet with it to help strengthen it.
The final taste was milder and way less fishy than the anchovy version. Sarah noted that she preferred the anchovies; the whole bite was more assertive and flavorful. I think though that sardines make more sense in a tasting menu context; anchovies stay with you for a while, and I wouldn’t want a diner to be licking anchovy bits out of their teeth three courses down the road.
The rest of the dish remains exactly as easy and straightforward as it did last time; one can put it together in under an hour if one has the rest of the ingredients on hand. It really is all about highlighting the exotic Tatami Iwashi.
I’ve noted before the story about Thomas Keller and his rabbits; that story came to mind as I was working on this dish. For a friend to think of this project of mine while on a family vacation is incredibly, incredibly touching to me. I’m at a loss for words for how grateful I feel, and as I opened the package of sardines with a pair of scissors, I felt an overwhelming desire to do this the best I could with them. I wanted to make this delicious, to photograph it well, to treat it with the respect and thoughtfulness it deserved.
This gratitude doesn’t end with this dish. For everyone who’s ever been supportive and encouraging to me as I wade through this, I am humbly and deeply grateful.