Chirimenjako (small dried fish) (ちりめんじゃこ)
Chirimenjako (small dried fish) is small, young fish, such as type of sardines (anchovy, maiwashi, urume iwashi, shirouo sardine, ikanago), cooked in salted water and dried in the sun. It is called Chirimen since small fish spread to be dried, look similar to Chirimen, a type of silk fabric (Crepe Kimono) that is partly wrinkled. The fish itself is called shirasu (young sardine, whitebait) and it is known by the name of shirasu when the fish is not totally dried.
Often small anchovies are used for chirimen, which can be caught in bulk and the fish does not contain too much oil. The length of the fish used in chirimanjako is usually 10-40 mm, and the ones around 20 mm are popular for selling in shops. Chirimenjako is also well known as a food that contains lots of calcium, same as milk.
Chirimenjako is the name for relatively well dried fish in Kansai region. In Kanto region it is called Shirasu boshi and used to be shipped as half dried fish, however the difference between Chirimenjako and Shirasuboshi is not so distinct nowadays.
Small anchovies are caught between spring and autumn, maiwashi and urume iwashi are caught in winter. Maiwashi spawn in the southern sea of Japan between February and March, and those small fish are caught between March and May on the Pacific side and in the Seto Inland Sea. Mainly they are caught in Ehime, Tokushima, Hiroshima, Kochi, Hyogo, Wakayama, Aichi and Shizuoka Prefectures.
Since small fish do not last once they are caught, they are processed to be ready to sell on the same day. The following is an explanation of how to dry and sell the fish.
Since the fish are dried on the day they are caught, fishermen will not go fishing when it rains even though it is in fishing season. Every morning it is decided whether or not to go fishing, after checking the weather and the situation of the waves. Two fishing boats are used together as a pair and a fine-mesh fishing net is put across them. As soon as the fish are caught, the boats will go back to the port and it only takes one to a few hours for the boats to go fishing and come back to the port.
The small fish unloaded at the port are immediately moved to the processing factory. Since they are caught with fine nets, other fish caught at the same time, such as calamari, octopus, Japanese horse mackerel and mackerel are removed. The raw small fish are called dorome (raw young fish) in Kochi Prefecture, and they were mixed with vinegary miso (soy bean paste), which goes well with alcohol.
When the fishing boat comes back to port, there will already be salted boiling water ready in a large cooking pot. The selected small fish are cooked in the pot for a short time. The fish just being cooked and not dried are called "Kamaage shirasu" (straight-from-the-pot young sardine which is freshly boiled) and will be frozen and shipped.
(In sightseeing spots, the local frozen kamaage shirasu are sold as souvenirs.)
Drying fish in the sun
Put a fine mesh in a sunny place with a breeze, then spread cooked fish on the mesh. This is done by hand. The length of the drying time depends on the weather of the day or the wind.
The salty Chirimenjako, which last longer, were more popular until the 1980s, but recently people are more health cautious and more salt reduced products are becoming popular.
Rarely small octopus or shrimp, crab and sea horse are contained in the Chirimenjako.