Baby Sardine Tsukudani is a classic Japanese preserved food that makes the best companion to rice. It is prepared by slowly simmering baby sardines in a sweet-savory sauce. Deliciously crunchy and addicting, you can also enjoy it as a topping on tofu, or as a snack to go with sake!
At a typical Japanese meal, you can often find an alluring variety of small plates that offers a blast of flavors. These tasty sides include a type of simmered preserved dish known as Tsukudani. Intensely flavored, tsukudani is very much like tsukemono (Japanese pickles). Both play an important role in complementing, contrasting, and accentuating a meal all at once.
Today I will share the most classic Tsukudani recipe – Baby Sardine Tsukudani or Jako no Tsukudani (じゃこの佃煮).
What is Tsukudani?
Tsukudani (佃煮) refers to preserved food of which the ingredients are simmered in a salty-sweet sauce made of soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar. The liquid is cooked down until fully absorbed. This simple method locks in the flavors and conserves the nutritional value of the food naturally.
The most typical tsukudani dishes include small fish (dried baby sardines), seaweed (kombu), or shellfish (asari or littleneck clams). Japanese families usually make large batches of tsukudani as part of the meal prep. We would freeze some and eat the rest over the course of the week.
History of Tsukudani in Japan
The name “Tsukudani” originates from Tsukudajima (佃島), the then island, now Chuo-ku in Tokyo. Before the Edo period, the fishermen of the village of Tsukuda assisted in the escape of the Tokugawa army from their enemies. The brave fishermen provided preserved small fish for the army to eat, which would become the earliest form of Tsukudani.
Originally, the preparation for Tsukudani was rather simple. It was only through some improvements on the flavors, Tsukudani became a sought-after delicacy among the elites in the Edo period (1603-1868) and slowly spread throughout the country.
During the Meiji era (1868-1912), tsukudani was used as an emergency and military ration due to its effectiveness as a preserved food. Subsequently, Tsukudani became a big part of Japanese cooking and is still popular until today.
What are Dried Baby Sardines (Chirimen Jako)?
Rich in calcium, protein, and iron, baby sardines (shirasu in Japanese) are a common seafood fare enjoyed in Japan. They make an excellent topping on Chilled Tofu (Hiyayakko) and Tamago Tofu. Sometimes we mix them with rice or rice balls, or make Furikake. We also preserve the fish by making tsukudani.
You’ll find different names for shirasu, or baby sardines, based on how they are processed. In this tsukudani recipe, I used dried sardines called the Chirimen Jako or Jako (ちりめんじゃこ・じゃこ). You will only need a quick rinse to clean and wash off excess salt from the fish before cooking.
In the U.S., Japanese grocery stores and some Asian grocery stores carry Chirimen Jakothe at the refrigerated section.
How to Enjoy Baby Sardine Tsukudani
With an intense umami flavor and an irresistible crunch, Baby Sardine Tsukudani makes a tasty companion for rice! You would scoop a tablespoon of tsukudani over the plain steamed rice and enjoy it together.
More than just a side dish to rice, you can also enjoy baby sardine tsukudani in these fun ways:
- Put on top of steamed rice and pour tea to enjoy it as Ochazuke
- Onigiri (rice balls)
- Put in the bento box
- Savory snack or companion with sake
Other Tsukudani Recipes You May Enjoy:
Japanese Ingredient Substitution: If you want to look for substitutes for Japanese condiments and ingredients, click here.
Baby Sardine Tsukudani
- Gather all the ingredients.
- Quickly rinse the dried baby sardines under running water. This helps to clean and to remove excess saltiness from the fish. Drain the baby sardines well and transfer them to the saucepan.
- Add mirin, sake, sugar, and soy sauce in the saucepan.
- Mix all the ingredients and turn the heat to medium heat.
- Bring the sauce to boil. Once boiling, skim off the foam and reduce the heat to low.
- Cover the baby sardines with an otoshibuta (drop lid) and simmer on low heat, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Be careful not to burn.
- Once the sauce has thickened and you can see the bottom of the pot, turn off the heat. Transfer the Tsukudani to a glass container. Optionally, add the sesame seeds and mix well.
- You can keep the Tsukudani in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks or the freezer for 2-3 months.