Copyright
Sam Elmore

AN ORIENTAL FISH-FRY


Since I retired from the Navy in '74, I've been involved with ship-building; constructing several vessels in shipyards outside the Continental limits of the U.S. One such was built in a Japanese shipyard, on the Southeast Coast of Honshu island. The village near the shipyard has existed for several hundred years. The primary livelihood for the local villagers is fishing, even after the modern shipyard was opened nearby.

Upon my arrival in Japan, I established bachelor living quarters in a small apartment in the little fishing village, and lived in much the same manner as the natives. Daily grocery shopping is the norm for Japanese families, because each meal is prepared using fresh foods. None-a that frozen stuff for them! So, when in Rome....

I soon tired of the beef-pork-chicken routine so, one Sunday, I went shopping for something different for my supper. I meandered through the village, past dozens of open-air markets with their wares on display. The packed dirt sidewalks and streets were freshly swept, and the merchants kept them sprinkled with water to hold down the dust.

I came to one of the many fish markets, and paused to look. Faced with a dozen or more different species of fish, eel, and squid-lookin' thangs, it occurred to me that I didn't recognize a single one of the fish; they were all foreign to me (no pun intended.) Now that I was at the fish market, though, my taste buds chimed in and convinced me that a good mess-a fish was exactly what I'd been missing.

The furnished apartment was equipped with all the cooking utensils I'd need to whup up a mess of fish and some french-fries. Now, if only I could find me some Appaloosie catfish, chinky-pin brim, goggle-eye; as a last resort, even a grinnel'd do....but, no such luck. Finally, I picked out a red fish (not the redfish, with the black spot on it's tail, like they got down 'ere in Louisiana)....this'n was just a fish that was colored red. It looked to weigh about 3 pounds, and I could tell it was fresh, from the condition of it's eyes and gill plates.

Now, I brought into play my extensive command of the Japanese language, learnt by rote during the twenty-odd years I'd been visiting that country while I was in the Navy. I indicated to the fish-market vendor that I would like to buy "that 'un 'ere"....pointing at the red-colored fish. (Ye'-see how easy it is to talk Japanese?)

"Want clean?", the vendor asked; in better English than I know how to use.

"Hai! (yes), want clean, dozo (please)."

He picked up a wooden-handled knife, which had been used and honed so much, the blade looked more like an ice-pick than a knife. Then things took a decided turn to'ards the 'iffy" side....instead of opening the fish's belly cavity, like anybody normally would, the vendor slipped that skinny knife blade down through the fish's gill slots. Snagging the fish's innards on the tip of the blade, he worked the entire set of entrails out through the gills!

Before he cut them loose at the gullet, he laid out and arranged the entrails on the cleaning board, alongside the fish, indicating with his knife-blade that all parts of the fish's innards were now on the outside, so anyone knowledgeable about fish innards could see 'em.
I was. I did.

He waited for my nod of acceptance, which I hesitantly provided, then cut the entrails a-loose from the fish.

"Want sc'lape?", he reinforced his question by flicking the blade and removing one or two scales, for my edification.

"Hai. Dozo; sc'lape away, ol' buddy."

He removed all the scales, and was in the process of wrapping the fish in butcher paper, when I waved at him to whoa. He laid out the fish again, and I indicated with my finger that I wanted the head cut off right....'ere.

"Hai! Dai jobi" (yes - okay).

He removed the fish's head at the desired location, wrapped up the fish head in paper and handed it to me!

My reason for having him dress the fish almost skillet-ready, there at the market, was because the garbage dumpster was located about ten feet from the front door of the apartment. The frequency of garbage pickup left a whole lot to be desired, and I didn't want to contribute any more to the existing "mal-ee-flu-vee-ite-us" of the neighborhood.

I offered him back the fish head, and using my "finger-language-Japanese", indicated that I preferred to keep the body of the fish, rather than the head. He looked at me like I was crazy. That changed, though, when I paid him for the whole fish, and let him keep the head for his-own-se'f. After the socially-required bows were tendered by both of us, I took my fish and retreated.

Arriving back at the apartment, I got the grease to rolling in the skillet, while I fee-layed the fish. I washed, salted, peppered, and mealed the fish filets, then laid the first piece of fish over in 'at hot grease. It didn't take long to figger out that I was prob'ly gon' have to move f'm 'ere.

That was the rankest smellin' fish I ever smelt in my life. I mean, it was raunchy! I quick-like got ever'thang on the stove turned off, wropped that stinkin' mess up in 'at fish-market paper, and forthwith deposited the whole thang in the dumpster. I spent a certain amount of time decidin' whether or not to throw the dang skillet away, too!

(For Sunday supper, I et a can of pork & beans.)