A man from Shuri once told me that he didn’t like fish, which was a bit of a surprise. He was born and living in Okinawa, yet he didn’t like fish. He was well over the age of 70 at the time and kept saying, “The fish I ate in my childhood had quite a bad smell, and when I think of it now, it was the smell of the fish starting to rot. I think that was the reason.”
Back in the days when people didn’t have refrigerators, fish went bad much faster than it does today. It was probably the same in mainland Japan, but Okinawa had the additional issue of hot weather. Using salt didn’t help, so salted and dried fish products were rarely found in Okinawa. Instead, people cherished kamaboko, pureed fish meat shaped into a loaf then steamed.
Kamaboko is an essential part of dishes and multi-tiered bento boxes for festive occasions in Okinawa, as well as the main islands of Japan. The most luxurious one is kasutera-kamaboko, which also includes egg. Both fish and eggs used to be quite rare and special ingredients.
Here’s how it’s made. First of all, flakes of white fish (gurukun is best) are put in a mortar and pounded and kneaded well. After this, well-beaten egg is poured in little by little and the mixture is kneaded again. Some salt is then added before the kneading continues. Next, sugar and water are added, after which you just keep kneading until it has an ideal, thick texture. Last of all, potato starch mixed with water is added.
The mold is then coated with vegetable oil, filled with the mixture and cooked tenderly in a steamer. About 40 minutes later, the kamaboko is finally ready. In the past, well, maybe just three or so decades ago1, kamaboko and kasutera-kamaboko were commonly made at home. The more and more you knead, the more tasty and long-lasting they become. These days, most people simply just buy kasutera-kamaboko, which costs around 900 yen per loaf (as of December 1998).
- Article was written in 1998. In January 2023, the cost of a loaf of kasutera-kamaboko is around 1300 yen.