Most of us have eaten that Japanese favourite known as Shishamo 柳葉魚 (Willow Leaf Fish) in Japan. The small silvery fish has a belly loaded full of roe, hence it is often called 多春魚 in Chinese.
Do you know where this fish come from?
Some people may be surprised to hear that
Thirty years ago, when I was in school on the island of Newfoundland off Canada’s rugged Atlantic coast, the Shishamo fish spawning season was one of the highlights of the year. (There was also the cod season, tuna season and salmon run etc.)
Over there in Canada, it is known as capelin.
The capelin is a member of the herring family. The capelin is silver in colour with a torpedo shaped, slender body. The female fish is about 20cm long and the male is slightly longer at 25cm.
The female fish and its roe is a favourite in Japanese cuisine known as Shishamo and referred to as 多春魚 in Chinese.
The annual spawning season is in the mid summer around the June and July period (just like our durian season in Malaysia). Every year this time, the capelin will migrate from the cold waters north of Greenland and Iceland, heading south to the numerous pristine coves of Newfoundland.
After class and dinner, we will bundle our boy who was 2 years old and the girl who was 1 year old at that time into our little blue Chevy hatchback. We will take along black household trash bags and our regular laundry basket. There was no need for nets, nor hook and line.
Portugal Cove nearest to our home was about one and a half hour’s leisurely driving along picturesque, windy country roads.
It’s like living in a postcard.
This was my first car - a Chevy Chevette. Bought it second hand for CND3,500 when it was 3 years old. It took us to many places in Canada and USA. Sold it for CND2,500, 3 years later upon graduating.
When we arrived, we parked the car at the top of the cliff and walked a short distance down to the sandy beach. There will usually be other people already gathering to welcome the capelin’s arrival.
Slowly the sky darkens and the sun disappears behind the wind swept rolling hills. The sun sets at around 10 o’clock in the summer. Soon it will be dark except for the light of the full moon in the cloudless sky.
All of us, mostly families with children, looked out to the sea in great anticipation. The winds were gentle at this time of the year and the surface of the sea rippled gently. The waves tip toed ashore, almost politely, as if they were afraid to make a noise.
Soon we will see, out in the distance, clouds of black blotches bobbing out on the sea’s surface. These black patches will gradually come nearer and nearer to the beach. They are not oil slicks. As the dark blotches drew nearer, we could see under the moonlight that they were beautiful silver fishes. Their tiny slender bodies glistened in the moonlight and light from our torches.
The people will roll up their trousers and wade out excitedly to meet the capelin like old friends, but armed with their laundry baskets. The capelin continued to swim towards the beach, oblivious to the presence of the people. We will wade to knee high water. The capelin will be squirming and thrashing under our feet, and all around our ankles, shins, calves, knees and thighs. You will feel like the fish giving you a gentle massage.
My son with friends
People will start scooping up the fish with their laundry baskets and nets, then wade ashore, heaving their heavy baskets and transferring their catch to trash bags and pails.
The next thing we realised were the sudden blooms of yellow among the dark patches in the sea. It's like silent bursts of orange colour fireworks on a dark night but in the sea. Soon, the entire sea surface along the shoreline will be a yellow sea.
The heavily laden female fish had just released their golden eggs.
This was followed by bursts of milky white in the sea. Soon all the yellow was enveloped by the sperm released by the male capelin.
Usually, we would have gathered our fill of capelin in our trash bags before the fish released their eggs and sperm.
We would then stand back and watch in awe and wonder at nature’s miracle before us. After about an hour, the writhing fish will be exhausted and will be washed onto the sand by the gentle waves. They will lie on the sand, barely twitching, taking their last breath awaiting their journey’s end without protest – as if satisfied that their life’s mission had been accomplished.
Moments of ecstasy, and then, death.
Gradually, the black sand, gravel and pebbles on the beach will be completely covered by yellow capelin eggs. The golden sand was actually a yellow carpet of capelin roe.
We would then load the fish and children back on the car and return home. It will be a long night ahead.
That night we would gut and scale hundreds of male fish, one at a time. Fortunately, the almost scaleless female fish need no further work as we would keep them with their eggs ;-D The fish will be neatly packed into zip lock bags, the type people used to pack their lunch sandwiches. We then stacked the bags of capelin in the freezer. In one night, we would stock up weeks of fresh fish – a gift from nature received with gratitude.
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