There is a saying that food is God’s love made edible. Hatahata is one such Japanese food that is dear to the people in Akita and whose importance is embodied in its name. Hatahata, also known as Japanese sandfish in English, due to its natural habitat occurring in sandy mud-bottoms, is the designated prefectural fish of Akita. They are found only during the cold winter months, due to its inability to survive in temperatures above 15 degrees Celcius (59 degrees Fahrenheit).
Where does the name hatahata come from? Traditionally, hatahata is an onomatopoeia used to describe the sound of thunder. Since the hatahata spawning season occurs during winter when thunderstorms are frequent, people came to associate the fish with thunder, or as a sign of the beginning of winter. For this reason it is sometimes referred to as kaminari-uwo, thunder fish. In fact, hatahata is written using the kanji characters “魚” (fish) and “雷” (thunder), or “魚” (fish) and “神” (god). Since there is a traditional Japanese belief that everything has a spirit, kami−whether animate or inanimate−it is not surprising that the people of Akita came to value this fish as a sacred gift to help them survive winter.
How hatahata is eaten
During the harsh winter months when food is scarce in Akita, hatahata are a precious household staple and a valuable source of protein. At first glance hatahata may look strange, due to its lack of fish scales. However, this makes it versatile and easy to cook. Broiling, frying, drying, pickling, and fermenting are only some of the many ways you can enjoy this fish. A famous speciality of the Oga peninsula is shottsuru, a type of fish sauce made from salted hatahata. With a rich umami flavour similar to Nam Pla sauce, it is great for shottsuru nabe (Japanese hot pot). Hatahata is also served as sushi in January to celebrate the New Year, and people in Akita like to say “it does not feel like the New Year until you eat hatahata”. You may find hatahata sushi and various other specialties at the Akita Shimin Ichiba, Akita People’s Market.
Buriko, a delicacy
A delicacy that comes from this fish is buriko, which is hatahata roe (fish eggs). In Japan it is common to eat fish roe or other internal organs of seafood and animals. Buriko looks like a small, plum-coloured ball; its texture is hard and chewy, and the eggs burst with each bite. When the fish are in season, the females are highly prized over the males due to the popularity of buriko. Fish roe is quite salty, so it is a good idea to eat it with rice. It is sometimes included in hatahata sushi as well.