If you’re living in Japan, what kind of Japanese snacks do you normally eat? Many of you may know famous and popular Japanese food as sushi, tempura, ramen, etc., but do you know any rare and interesting Japanese snacks other than sweet buns or rice crackers?
Today, we’re going to share an interesting Japanese snack called “Kusaya,” which is made from real fish. It’s not included in the sushi category, but Kusaya is dried fish. Have you ever tried dried fish before?
Let’s find more information about Kusaya in this article!
What is Kusaya?
Kusaya is a dried fish snack, which is a local specialty of the Izu Islands in Japan. Kusaya is not the name of the fish itself, but it’s what the name of this special snack. Japanese people make Kusaya with many kinds of fish such as muroaji (brownstriped mackerel scad), shiira (mahi-mahi), tobiuo (flying fish), sanma (pacific saury), etc. Japanese people love eating blue-backed fish since they’re high in DHA. People say DHA improves brain function, which is why many Japanese parents often tell their kids to eat more blue-backed fish, as they think it will make their kids more clever.
Do you know why this dried fish is called “Kusaya” in Japanese? The name Kusaya is made by connecting the following words:
・Kusaya= “臭い(kusai=stinks)” + “魚 (sakana=fish)”
Kusaya is made by connecting the 2 words which together mean “stink fish,” which in Japanese is pronounced as “kusai sakana,” but gradually changed to “Kusaya” from influence from Niijima (a small island right under Kanagawa Prefecture).
If you hear the word stink fish, you may immediately hesitate to try this special food, but if you like blue-backed fish and have no hesitation for special smell of blue-backed fish, it’s worth trying this interesting Japanese snack at least once.
Is Kusaya a popular snack in Japan?
To tell you the truth, not all the Japanese people like Kusaya as their daily snack due to the strong, unique fish smell. However, Japanese people who like drinking alcohol such as Japanese sake, beer, or Shochu (distilled spirits) tend to like nibbling on Kusaya as a snack while drinking. Those who tend to eat only sweet snacks and are not really good at eating salty snacks might find it difficult to swallow Kusaya.
Are you curious how Kusaya tastes? Perhaps it’s little difficult to immediately imagine the taste of Kusaya since its name means “stink fish,” which many would think tastes horrible. But if you try eating Kusaya even once, your impression may change! Kusaya tastes salty, but it is also mild, and is surprisingly not so high in sodium. Since Kusaya has strong fishy smell, even some Japanese people hesitate to try it, but it is actually full of umami (the hidden fifth sense of taste).
Some Japanese people enjoy eating Kusaya while drinking Japanese sake, beer, or Shochu because it goes great with drinking alcohol. They enjoy eating Kusaya not as snacks in day time, but snacks for little bites after dinner. If you still hesitate to try eating Kusaya at this moment, how about trying it at the Kusaya bar in Japan where you can eat authentic Kusaya?
Address: Nagaoka building 4F, 2-16-1 Minami Ikebukuro Toshima-ku, Tokyo, 171-0022
Open hour: Monday-Sunday 15:00-3:00 (next morning)
(Yurakucho Line) Ikebukuro station, walk about 3 minutes from exit 39.
(Fukutoshin Line) Ikebukuro station, walk about 3 minutes from exit 39.
(JR) Ikebukuro station, walk about 6 minutes.
*Note that the hour can be changed due to the COVID-19 situation
This Kusaya bar is very popular for Japanese people who love eating Kusaya! Many Japanese people say Kusaya is delicious, interesting food and goes great with Shochu, or even with tequila! This Kusaya bar has an English menu as well, so please take a look.
What makes this snack popular?
Even with the unique strong fishy smell, why is Kusaya is so popular with some Japanese people? The reason is not only the good taste, but Kusaya is also known as very healthy food such due to following reasons:
*Kusaya is richer in nutrition than normal dried fish
Kusaya contains many good nutritional elements such as DHC, EPA, DHA, calcium, amino acid, niacin, coenzyme Q10, protein, vitamin B6, vitamin D, vitamin B12, etc.
*Kusaya is good for fatigue recovery and improves immunity
Kusaya contains the nutrition of taurine which helps to prevent from catching cold.
*Kusaya helps to get the alcohol out of peoples’ system
While people are drinking alcohol, Kusaya helps to get the alcohol out of their system. Japanese people who lives in the Izu Islands often eat Kusaya; they drink a lot of alcohol but they’re always healthy thanks to Kusaya. People also say Kusaya makes people’s bones and liver stronger.
Many people have the impression that Kusaya is stinky dried fish, but actually Kusaya is full of nutritional value. It tastes a bit salty, but many Japanese people are getting hooked on this unique taste. As you may know, many Japanese people are addicted to healthy food, and people count Kusaya as a healthy item. If you compare this to your country, you may also have a healthy local food that has a unique smell or interesting taste, and somehow everyone likes it, right? Kusaya is an interesting Japanese snack that attracts (some) Japanese people even with its unique smell.
Do you still not believe Kusaya is so nutritious, or that many Japanese people could be addicted to that kind of dried fish? For those who are still doubting how good Kusaya is for people’s health, there is a story which makes you believe it’s really true.
In the year 1965, during the Showa period, there was no doctor in Niijima. When Japanese people got sick or got injured, people used to drink Kusaya-jiru (Kusaya soup) or put drops of Kusaya on the injured spot, and they were magically cured! The reason why Kusaya-jiru has so much power is because Kusaya has natural antibiotics which can cure sicknesses.
Do you now see how Kusaya is a healthy food, as well as a popular snack in Japan? Japanese people who lived in Niijima used Kusaya as medicine at that time and it was very useful since Kusaya would last longer than normal dried fish.
Where is Kusaya made?
Kusaya is originally from the Izu islands in Japan, especially at Niijima, Hakkeijima, Izu-Oshima, and Miyakejima. Japanese people also make Kusaya at Chichijima from the Ogasawara Islands these days.
Why do Japanese people make Kusaya at these places? Japanese people used to make salt in Niijima during the Edo period, and salt was a valuable seasoning at that time, during which approximately 1,500,000 Japanese people lived. Japanese people who lived in Niijima used to give salts as offerings, but they changed their offering from salt to Kusaya due to the strict management of the Shogunate at that time, and people couldn’t make salt as easily as before. During this situation, people changed their plans to make offerings using salted fish using sea water instead of real salt. This was the how Kusaya was originally born in Japan.
How is it made?
Do you know how Japanese people make Kusaya?
The main process is as follows:
1. After the fishermen catch the fish, they cut each fish along the spine.
2. Clean the fish very thoroughly, especially of fish meat with a bloody color and fatty fish spot.
3. Dip the cleaned fish into the Kusaya-jiru for about 8-20 hours.
4. After that, clean the fish again to get rid of Kusaya-jiru on the surface of the fish, and dry the Kusaya in the sun for about 1 or 2 days to make dried Kusaya.
The important point of this process is Kusaya-jiru. Japanese people who lived in Niijima used to make dried fish by marinating the fish in the salt water in buckets to make the dried fish storable for the long term. It was the time of Edo period, during which salt and water were very valuable in Japan, so Japanese people used the same salt water repeatedly to marinate the fish. Step by step, tiny organisms appeared, and the salted water would ferment the fish and create special unique smells by repeatedly using the salted water. This is what we call Kusaya-jiru. Some Japanese people have used the same Kusaya-jiru recipe since 200 to 300 years ago, marinating new fish inside the Kusaya-jiru to get more good nutrition.
Normally Japanese people grill and eat Kusaya, but people can eat Kusaya “raw” as well. When you want to grill Kusaya, the basic cooking method is to grill the front side 70% and the back side 30%. Kusaya is lower in sodium than normal dried fish, so you can cook Kusaya very fast. It can easily get burned. However, you have to be careful if you want to grill Kusaya at home. Since Kusaya has very strong unique smell, the room would be filled with that smell, and some people say it’s hard to breathe. Please don’t forget to air out the room while you’re cooking Kusaya.
What are some other interesting Japanese snacks?
For those who have already heard of the word Kusaya in Japan, hopefully you know little more detailed information about Kusaya and its mystery by reading this article. Although Kusaya has a unique smell (you can also say interesting smell; something people normally don’t smell), it tastes good and not as bad as it smells. Additionally, Kusaya is very healthy. Normally snacks are considered junk food and not so good for people’s health in general, but Kusaya is considered a healthy snack. The weak point is only the SMELL, but one bite turns out to be a tasty nibble. Some Japanese people say Kusaya smells like half-dried dust cloth or unwashed socks, but please take this as just for reference purposes.
Even though Kusaya is very popular for some Japanese people, this interesting snacks is usually eaten by adults not kids. Most kids hate Kusaya’s smell, and Kusaya definitely works better for adults.
Are you now interested in trying Kusaya in Japan? Hopefully you will not having any unpleasant experience due to the unique smell of Kusaya. Eating chocolates or cookies may satisfy peoples’ hunger, but it may be valuable experience to eat interesting snacks instead of typical snacks. You can’t eat Kusaya in other countries, you can eat them ONLY in Japan! How about expanding your life experience by eating interesting snacks such as Kusaya while you’re staying in Japan?
If you know other Japanese interesting snacks you want to share with us, please let us know!
Tell you friends or families about Kusaya.
They also may love enjoy eating Kusaya.