Iwashi Shoyuyaki: Sardines Sauteed in Shoyu

Iwashi Shoyuyaki: Sardines Sauteed in Shoyu (鰯 醤油焼き)

Iwashi Shoyuyaki: Sardines Sauteed in Shoyu (鰯 醤油焼き)
Sardines sauteed in sake and soy sauce with ginger make an excellent side dish and goes extremely well with sake and beer.

Iwashi (sardine); aozakana

Sardine is called iwashi in Japanese and iwashi is an aozakana (青魚), literally, ‘blue fish’. Blue refers to the color of the back of the fish. Aozakana are in season in autumn and winter in Japan and are rich, oily fish and therefore very tasty.

Interestingly, the Chinese character, or kanji for iwashi is 鰯 and it means ‘weak fish’. Why weak? Well, iwashi have to live in a large school, they die easily and spoil quickly. The flesh of the sardine is very soft (weak) too. In olden days in Japan it is said that poor people ate iwashi because it was the only fish that they could afford. Iwashi are now enjoyed by everyone in Japan. As sardines are small the bones are difficult to remove, therefore favored preparation methods usually involve lots of heat, like deep frying. This make the bones barely noticeable. Sardines are also ground to make iwashi-dango (meatballs) for winter soups and broths. Super fresh sardines are a favorite at sushi restaurants and quite a treat if you like aozakana!

Iwashi Shoyuyaki
Iwashi Shoyuyaki: Sardines Sauteed in Shoyu (鰯 醤油焼き)

Whole sardines are a common sight in the fresh fish cases of any supermarket in Japan. I cannot think of any fish that is cheaper than sardines in Japan, a pack of 6-10 is usually about 100 yen (about 1 US dollar). That is very cheap for anything in Japan.

I bought several packs of fresh sardines at the grocery store because I wanted to try a recipe called iwashi-gohan (sardine rice). I made it and it was astounding! That article is coming soon, this one is a teaser.

Miwa (the KyotoFoodie formerly known as Paku) can really cook and she has done sauteed iwashi a few times for me that was really good. I decided to give it a whirl, with shoyu, it was my first time to make it. Miwa and I were both very surprised with my creation.

Shoyuyaki is a category of sauteed dishes in Japan in which steak, chicken, fish, even vegetables are sauteed in oil until nearly done. Then shoyu is added, which cooks down very quickly and then burns.

The secret is to remove the heat a few moments before the burning point and then get it out of the pan and onto a plate immediately. Even if the heat if removed it will continue to cook (and burn) in the still hot pan.


  • 6-10 whole sardines (fresh is best but frozen would probably also work fine)
  • ginger chopped or julienned (fresh)
  • 5 tablespoons cooking sake (white cooking wine or even Chinese cooking wine ought to work fine too)
  • 1-2 tablespoons mirin (optional)
  • salt
  • oil (I used olive and a dash of premium sesame oil at the end)
  • 1-2 tablespoons shoyu (Japanese soy sauce recommended)

To clean the sardines cut off the heads, remove all entrails and cut off tails. Some people leave the heads and tails on but I would only recommend this for deep fried preparations which make the bones hardly noticeable. Sauteing doesn’t soften the bones sufficiently. Additionally, you can pull the backbone out if you prefer.

Iwashi flesh, especially the belly skin is very soft so gutting the fish is best done simply by cutting off the bottom 1/4 of the belly on a cutting board. Most of the guts come out with the belly skin. Simply wash out the rest under running water.

After cleaning the iwashi place in salt water for several hours. This removes some of the fishiness. If you can get really fresh, sushi quality iwashi, you can probably skip this.

Cooking just takes a few minutes. Heat the pan and add a few tablespoons of oil. Add iwashi and sliced ginger and saute for several minutes over medium heat. Carefully turn the fish over an saute for another minute or so. Add cooking sake. I added some more finely cut ginger here. Cover and cook for until the cooking sake is reduced by about half. Add shoyu and cook over high heat, watch carefully. Do not burn! When the sauce starts to thicken up remove from heat and transfer to a plate immediately.

Iwashi Shoyuyaki – Sardines Prepared for Cooking
Iwashi Shoyuyaki: Sardines Sauteed in Shoyu (鰯 醤油焼き)

Iwashi Shoyuyaki – Sardines with Ginger in the Frying Pan
Iwashi Shoyuyaki: Sardines Sauteed in Shoyu (鰯 醤油焼き)

Iwashi Shoyuyaki – Sardines Sauteed on One Side
Iwashi Shoyuyaki: Sardines Sauteed in Shoyu (鰯 醤油焼き)

Iwashi Shoyuyaki – Sardines Sauteed on Second Side, Cooking Sake Added
Iwashi Shoyuyaki: Sardines Sauteed in Shoyu (鰯 醤油焼き)

Iwashi Shoyuyaki – Sauteing in Shoyu
Iwashi Shoyuyaki: Sardines Sauteed in Shoyu (鰯 醤油焼き)

Iwashi Shoyuyaki Served
Iwashi Shoyuyaki: Sardines Sauteed in Shoyu (鰯 醤油焼き)

Iwashi Shoyuyaki Served – detail
Iwashi Shoyuyaki: Sardines Sauteed in Shoyu (鰯 醤油焼き)

Iwashi Chinese Kanji Character: weak

The Chinese character, or kanji for iwashi, is 鰯 and this character was actually made in Japan and does not exist in Chinese. Pictorial, kanji characters have fascinating etymological meanings. The Chinese character for iwashi can be separated into two independent characters; 魚 (fish) and 弱 (weak). Put them together and it spells iwashi in Japan!

Iwashi Japanese kanji character 鰯の漢字

9 Responses to “Iwashi Shoyuyaki: Sardines Sauteed in Shoyu”

  1. kat says:

    I always buy canned iwashi. I should really get in gear and buy fresh.

  2. Peko-P says:

    Hi kat, I don’t think I have ever bought the canned ones, except for tsumami, as they go with beer exceedingly well. Yeah, try the fresh ones, they are great!

  3. My ojiisan used to make iwashi sashimi with a little grated garlic on top. Your prep sounds fantastic. I have an unrelated question for you guys, what are those little purses made of abura-age stuffed with mochi and tied with kampyo called? If my description isn’t cutting it, there are photos in my latest post. Thanks!

  4. PakuPaku says:

    Hello, Marc-san,
    I love imashi sashimi with a little grated garlic, actually it is my favorite kind of sushi!
    By the way, your oden looked very yummy. The purse is called kinchaku. We also call them mochi-iri-kinchaku. It means mochi in kinchaku.

  5. DocChuck says:

    WOW! That’s an impressive post.

    But I think I’ll have my sardines out of a can (packed in oil) . . . served on a saltine cracker . . . with a dash of Tabasco and a squirt of fresh lemon juice.

    Of course, I’m a pretty simple guy . . . LOL!

  6. Peko Peko says:

    Hello DocChuck,

    Thank for stopping by! Sardines in oil on a cracker go very well with sake.

    I checked out your page, your Choice Reuben Sandwich looks yummy. Home made Russian dressing too.

    It is SOOOOOOO hard to find a really excellent sandwich in Japan. I love bread and I love sandwiches, so that is a definite minus to living here.

    Stop by again.

  7. Jude says:

    So simple and delicious… I make something very similar but with mackerel.

  8. Almondeyes says:

    I got 5 of them from our Giant Hypermarket (Subang Jaya, Malaysia) yesterday at 0.99sen each. They were categorized under “Sanwa Fish” and I thought they looked like sardines! I prepared them like canned Ayam Brand sardines and being fresh, they were just fantastic. Go ahead and get some! I am getting more this weekend! Cheers!

  9. Peko Peko says:

    Hello Jude, Do you have a link to your mackerel version?

    Hello Almondeyes, Getting more this weekend? You sound like a satisfied customer!

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