I have yet to meet a person who is ambivalent about shirasu (whitebait fish). It’s a food that instantly evokes a reaction and makes for a GREAT story.
What exactly is ‘whitebait’? The delicacy consists of young sardines, herrings, anchovies. Since the fish are less than 2 centimeters from head to tail, you can pop hundreds in your mouth. Interestingly, given that Japan is revered for its seafood, shirasu is not a fish you can find throughout Japan.
Your greatest chance of finding it is to head to Kanagawa Prefecture. Fortunately, the two cities where it is considered a speciality – Enoshima and Kamakura – are super convenient to both Yokosuka and Tokyo.
Granted, it is not for everyone.
What makes shirasu special? It is a fish that spoils quickly and can only be eaten on the day it is caught. In addition, it is packed with important nutrients such as calcium and Omega-3 fatty acids.
Few culinary adventures give you such a superior feeling of your place in the food chain: take a single gulp of a shirasu dish you’ve likely swallowed at least 10 fish. Now for the important questions:
Does it stink? Does it taste like FISH?
Because the fish are so tiny, you don’t have to worry about bones. I was surprised at how mild boiled shirasu is. Those whose taste buds are far superior describe the flavor as ‘delicate’ or ‘subtle’. What is even more surprising than the taste is the texture. Boiled shirasu tastes…fluffy.
Since the fish are tiny and rather bland, shirasu can be tossed on just about everything. And at Enoshima Island, it just about is. 🙂
It is very easy to find shirasu at nearby Kamakura. The reason I recommend trying it at Enoshima Island is because I am of the mindset that it is much easier to trust the quality of a seafood product if you can see the ocean. Since Enoshima is an island, your brain can easily process where the fish came from.
A second reason I recommend Enoshima is that you do not have to embark on an aggressive scavenger hunt to find a place that offers shirasu. Head to Enoshima, and it is THERE.
Finally, if you are going to try something a little eyebrow raising, you want a fantastical story to go with it. The island is not just home to the dragon of Enoshima – it has stunning views of the ocean, palm trees AND Mount Fuji.
The main streets leading from the train station to the main island temple are lined on either side with restaurants and vendors serving ultra-fresh seafood. Interested? Here are four exciting ways to try your shirasu:
1. Western Style
Because of its aforementioned versatility, shirasu can be sprinkled atop pizza, spaghetti, linguine, hamburgers, etc. for an unexpected twist. Its color camouflages very neatly with noodles or mozzarella. However, unless you are already a fan, I gently suggest NOT ordering it for the first time at a restaurant.
Eating at a sit-down restaurant is also the most expensive way to experience it. Expect to pay upwards of ¥1500 ($11.20).
2. Seafood bowl
The classic way Japanese consume it is as shirasu donburi (large helping topped on a rice bowl). The first time I tried shirasu, I was not certain I could eat such a large portion. I hedged my bets by opting for a seafood sampler that featured a range of island specialties. (Photo above.) The sampler + bowl of miso + green tea came to less than ¥1300 ($9.71).
The gorgeous bowl showcased a variety of island fish, with two tiny portions of raw and boiled shirasu.
Of course the meal was delicious, but I was a bit disappointed. It was not that the shirasu was bad – it is just that I preferred the other fish so much more.
Concerned you may not care for the taste? No worries! That’s what soy sauce, ginger and wasabi are for. 🙂
3. Street Food
Street food is the ideal choice for a shirasu novice!
It is also great for those who prefer their fish cooked. For those who prefer not to identify exactly what they are eating, I suggest a croquette. The genius of the croquette is that the shirasu arrives DISGUISED! They also come in flavors, such as baked shirasu and cheese balls, or shirasu with potato, onion, and clam chowder. You have to break open the hot baked good and peer carefully inside to confirm that you are eating it.
My favorite shirasu vendor sells his creations out of his miniature orange van. Baked mochi is served lollipop-style, and is presented covered with shirasu, special sauce, and fresh spring onion.
The hot street version is the way to go if you are a novice, and it is especially satisfying on a cold day.
Aside from being fun, street food it is the most inexpensive option: ¥200-¥380 ($1.49-$2.84).
4. Au Naturel
Are you the type who insists on knowing EXACTLY what you are eating? Do you crave your food to arrive with the barest minimum of human interference?
Fear not – the small shops that line Enoshima’s Main Street sell tiny ‘shots’ of raw gray translucent fish, served in plastic cups. I think there is a reason there is usually beer served near the shirasu shots. There is zero ambiguity; you know exactly what you are getting.
5. As an Avante Garde Specialty Ice-Cream
Yes, ice-cream! A cone of – what of the ONLY ‘real fish’ ice cream I have ever seen – goes for ¥450 ($3.36).
Last week, with my time in Japan swiftly winding down, I finally squared my shoulders and asked for the matcha and shirasu cone. My eyes bugged as I saw her generously sprinkle white pieces atop the swirls. I knew immediately that it was not coconut. Rather, she had added boiled shirasu for extra texture!
I made my way toward the waterfront and cautiously nibbled at the ice-cream. It tasted like an ocean breeze. It was light, refreshing.
The ice-cream was GOOD.
If You Go
Of course, there are many other delicious foods to try at Enoshima Island, such as freshly roasted corn, clams-on-a-stick, or sweet crepes.
Enoshima Island is easily reached from both Yokosuka and Tokyo. From Kamakura Station, take the Enoden monorail to Enoshima station. Once there, it is an easy 15 minute walk to Enoshima Island.
Looking for a place to stay? The waterfront near both Kamakura and Enoshima will give you heart-racing views of Mt. Fuji.
Here’s wishing you a safe and awesome adventure!