Shiokara (塩辛), one of the so-called ‘bizzare tastes (chinmi 珍味)’ of Japanese cuisine, is made using small pieces of seafood, typically squid, which are pickled in the creature’s viscera with around 10% salt. Other ingredients, such as shichimi (blend of chili peppers), wasabi, mirin or grated yuzu peel are also added for zest. A really good shiokara can ferment like this for up to six months. Viscera? Doesn’t that mean innards? Yes, but don’t be too quick to turn your nose up, because there’s really no finer snack to have when you’re out drinking sake… honest!
#1. It’s not as bad as it sounds
An acquired taste, shiokara has a salty, slightly spicy taste, with a somewhat sticky texture and distinctive odour, which can initially seem strange to a Western palate. However, it’s usually served in very small portions as an accompaniment to food and drink. At first sight, shiokara might not seem very appealing, but you have to find one that suits you. Personally, I love ika no shiokara (squid), but you might prefer another one. Even so, don’t get down because there are other shiokara such as shuto (made with tuna), ganzuke (crab), mefun (salmon) and uruka (sweetfish). I think most people find a favourite in time, so never be afraid to try.
#2. It’s a taste of old Japan
Much of Japan’s cuisine is comparatively modern, but shiokara is centuries older; the Japanese were fermenting viscera of squid at about the same time as 11th century Icelandic Vikings were tucking into fermented shark, and for much the same reasons: for winter food. Given the long history of squid fishing in Japan, ika no shiokara was probably one of the earliest types, and it’s still the most commonly eaten today.
#3. Bar owners will love you
Shiokara is very salty, so the more you eat, the thirstier you’ll become, and the more sake you’ll order, making you popular with bar owners! But joking aside, there are many restaurants and drinking establishments that pride themselves on the shiokara they serve, so a small complementary dish will often be the first thing to arrive at your table. Then again, if you’re somebody’s guest, they may order shiokara for you to try. Either way, the Japanese feel an obligation to accept whatever they’re served, and so you should (when in Rome, and all that)!
#4. It’s healthy
I’ve lost count of the times Japanese people have foisted weird-looking food on me with the assurance that it’s in some way healthy. But then, few Japanese drop dead at 65 from an excess of cholesterol, so what do I know? Whether they actually enjoyed fermented squid or not, the Japanese of the distant past knew that to survive the winter, they needed the protein, vitamins and minerals that shiokara could provide, and being low in calories and fat, it has many potential health benefits today too in reducing the risks of heart attacks, strokes, obesity, and hypertension. Just try not to think about the salt content, or all that sake you’re guzzling!
I’m not saying you need to be drunk to enjoy shiokara, or even that it’ll help you to enjoy it, but shiokara and sake is an established tradition and an iconic part of Japanese food culture. If you came to Japan to sample the culture, ika no shiokara with a sake chaser should definitely be on your list of traditions to be savoured!