It was always a test of patience at my grandmother’s house on New Year’s Day. There was so much waiting: waiting for all the guests to arrive, waiting for the appetizers to be properly set on the table, waiting for my favorite dish to appear. And then finally, at last, there it was: grilled black cod, seared golden and crispy after marinating for several days in my favorite saikyo miso.
Flaky, buttery, and slightly sweet but rich in umami flavor, saikyo miso-marinated black cod is a classic Japanese dish. At first glance, it’s easy to assume it takes a lot of skill to prepare — it is, after all, synonymous with Nobu, the Japanese fine-dining restaurant whose chef, Nobu Matsuhisa, helped to popularize the dish in the U.S. But in reality, even the most inexperienced of cooks can easily prepare it at home. All you need is a few pantry staples, a bit of patience, and, of course, good saikyo miso.
To buy quality saikyo miso, it first helps to know exactly what saikyo miso is, and how it differs from traditional red miso. The latter is a red-brown paste that has a strong, funky, salty-earthy flavor, whereas saikyo miso is creamy beige in color and has a mellow honeyed rice fragrance. Originating from Kyoto, it is a regional type of generic white miso, and is well known for being especially sweet and rich in umami flavor.
While its ingredients are very similar to red miso — soybeans, salt, and koji (a culinary fungus) — saikyo miso is also fermented with a high percentage of rice and a bit of barley, and for a much shorter period of time. Its sweetness is actually a byproduct of this fermentation process, and so high-quality saikyo miso products will have no added sugars.
Your first step for finding traditional, well-made saikyo miso is to look for products that are labelled mutenka (無添加), or additive-free. This means it will have no added sugars, preservatives, or extra flavorings. Most miso labelled additive-free also tends to be organic, but if you really want to be sure, look for the word yuuki (有機), which means organic in Japanese. I often use Hikari’s Organic Saikyo Sweet Miso, which meets both of these requirements. While saikyo miso is traditionally vegan, some varieties will include dashi, which is a bonito-based broth, and so if you have dietary restrictions always check the label first.
Because saikyo miso is relatively low in salt, it has a relatively short shelf life compared to red miso. Store it in the refrigerator, and after opening it, keep a sheet of wax paper or plastic wrap over the miso’s surface so it is exposed to as little oxygen as possible. Stored properly, it should last for about three to six months. In case you find yourself in a position where you over-bought or don’t have time to use all of it, saikyo miso also freezes very well.
There are a lot of ways to cook with saikyo miso, which does a fantastic job at lending rich and complex flavor to any number of foods. Add a spoonful to stir-fries and salad dressings, or whisk a dollop into a sauce. Or do what I love to do, which is to use it in a marinade for proteins like chicken or fish. As you’ll see in the saikyo miso black cod recipe below, it’s a technique that offers plenty of rewards — most notably that of a dish worth waiting for.
Saikyo Miso Black Cod
2 black cod filets, skin on, each 3 to 4 inches in length (for a richer flavor, salmon or yellowtail is also a great option)
3 tablespoons saikyo miso
2 tablespoons sake
1 tablespoon mirin
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon neutral oil
Step 1: Lightly salt both sides of the fish and leave it to rest on a paper towel at room temperature for about 30 minutes; you can also leave it overnight in the refrigerator. This is to draw out excess moisture and remove any strong fishy smells.
Step 2: Mix the miso, sake, mirin, and sugar in a bowl. In a flat-bottom sealable container or baking dish, cover both sides of the fish in the marinade and let it rest in the refrigerator overnight or for up to 2 days.
Step 3: Remove the fish from the marinade and wipe off the leftover miso using a rubber spatula or paper towel. You may choose to reuse the marinade one more time or discard it.
Step 4: Grill or sauté the fish. If you’re sauteeing it, heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat and place the fish in the skillet skin side down. Turn down the heat to medium and cook for about 5 minutes, until the skin is crisp, then turn and cook for another 5 minutes, until the center of the fish is opaque. If you’re grilling the fish, use a fish basket or line the grill with a piece of aluminum foil to prevent the fish from sticking. Grill the fish skin side down over medium-hot coals for 3 minutes, covered. Then turn the fish and grill it for another 2 to 3 minutes; both sides should be browned.
Serve immediately. The fish is traditionally accompanied by rice and garnished with hajikami, or pickled ginger sprouts. But if you can’t find hajikami, the fish will still be delicious without it.
Kaki Okumura is a Japanese food and wellness writer helping others to discover simple ways to make authentic, healthy, and delicious Japanese food at home. You can find her on Instagram at @kakikata.space.
Louiie Victa is a chef, recipe developer, food photographer, and stylist living in Las Vegas.
Recipe tested by Louiie Victa