My mum’s recipe: Sardine Nanbanzuke – Japanese Escabeche

When I opened a bag of sardines that we purchased, I realised that they were a bit smaller than usual. I could still fillet and pan-fry them as per my original plan, but they might not be as meaty as I like. So, I decided to call my mum.

Her suggestion was Nanbanzuke.

Nanban-zuke Sardines by alittlebitofsoy

Nanbanzuke is a Japanese dish, which can refer to fried fish or meat marinated in a mixture of vinegar. It is eaten cold and can be served as both appetizer and main meal. It is ready to eat within a day after marinating, or it can be marinated longer, 3-4 days to make the meat more tender.

Yes, it s a Japanese version of Escabeche!

The dish was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in the 16th – 17th century. Portugal was actually the first western country with which Japan had a trading relationship. A lot of new culture came into Japan at the time and Escabeche was one of them. I can see why Japanese people liked Escaneche. It is a fish dish which can be preserved for a long time. It is a perfect match with Japanese culture, isn’t it?! During that time, Japanese people called the Portuguese and Spanish region “Nanban”, therefore this dish was named “Nanban-zuke” (“Zuke” means marinade and Nanban means southern barbarian – sorry I believe we did not mean it!!).

In Japan, horse mackerel is the most common fish for Nanbanzuke, but it can be any fish such as sardines, Spanish mackerel, cod, salmon etc. It does not need to be fish either. Chicken and pork are nice too.

This cooking method (frying and followed by marinating in the vinegar mixture) makes the protein soft and tender. If we are making it with small fish, we can eat the whole fish including bones. That’s why my mum suggested Nanbanzuke for my small sardines, so that I do not need to fillet them – clever!!

I made my first attempt as she told me – of course without measurements. I was simply relying on my memory of the tongue.

Well, I have to say that my tongue has a very good memory. I can proudly say that this Nanbanzuke is quite like my mum’s!

I would like to share this recipe with you here. This is my mum’s Sardine Nanbanzuke. Hope you like it as much as I do.


You can make this recipe with fillets if the sardines are a good size. To fillet, open the sardine from the belly like a butterfly after cleaning (see method below), and remove the backbone by hand. Then, follow the method from “Prep for Sardines” below. Or, you can just buy the filleted sardines. It will be ready to eat in 1-2 days.

If you use bigger fish such as salmon fillet or cod fillet, you can just cut it into a big bite size, and then follow the method from “Prep for Sardines” below. It will be also ready to eat in 1-2 days.

Nanban-zuke by alittlebitof soy


  • 10 Sardines
  • A pinch of Salt
  • 1 Tablespoon of Flour
  • Oil for Shallow Fry

For Nanbanzuke Marinate

  • 1 Cup (250ml) of White Vinegar or Rice Wine Vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons of Sugar
  • 4g of Dried Kelp (if you cannot find it, you can skip it)


  • 1/2 Onion – thinly sliced
  • 1/2 Red Chili – deseeded and chopped
  • 5 thinly sliced Lemon – about 1/3 of a Lemon


Clean Sardines

  • Under gently running cold water, rinse the sardines and scrape off the scales with a knife.
  • Cut off the heads.
  • Cut an incision along the belly. Remove the guts from the opened belly.
  • Wash both inside and outside the sardines under gently running cold water. Pat-dry them.

Prep for Sardines

  • Once you clean the sardines, sprinkle salt over the both sides. Lay the sardines on paper towels. Cover them with paper towels and leave them for about 15 minutes.
  • Wipe the excess water from the sardines (both inside and outside) with paper towels

Preparation for Nanban Marinade

  • In a clean container, which the sardines will be marinated, add vinegar and sugar. Whisk them until the sugar is dissolved. Place a dried kelp sheet inside the mixture.

Sallow fry & Marinate Sardines

  • Heat oil over a medium heat to 170° C – 180° C ( to check the temperature, drop a small piece of fish in the oil. If it sinks to middle of the oil and comes back, the oil is ready).
  • Coat the sardines (both inside and outside) with flour evenly. Cook them for about 3 minutes. Flip them and cook the other side for about 3 minutes or until the sardines are cooked and both sides are nicely coloured.
  • Transfer the sardines into the prepared Nanban Marinade. When you transfer, shake any excess oil off from the sardines. This is to avoid the marinade being oily. The fried fish must be placed into the marinade immediately, while it is still hot. This allows the fish to absorb the marinade better.
  • Place chopped red chili and sliced onion on top of the sardines. Lay sliced lemon on top. Cover the container and marinate for 3 days in the fridge so that you will be able to eat the whole fish including bones. If you are making it with fillet, it will be ready in 1-2 days.

To serve, plate the sardines and the onion nicely. Serve cold.


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