July 16th 2022. The day started with a slight mist of rain amidst the 梅雨 (‘tsuyu’ = rainy season) in the coastline of Iwate. The air was filled with moisture, inducing the sweat to constantly drip in the summer heat. But despite such conditions, I wasn’t in the comfort of my room’s air-conditioner, and instead I was on a 20min walk towards the venue holding the 7th Professional Sanma Grilling License Exam here in Ofunato, Iwate. The 36 people, including myself, who gathered this day were all showing signs of excitement and anticipation. Some were from Ofunato, but the majority were people outside of Ofunato who have come to grill Sanma at the heart of the region known to be one of the top Sanma suppliers.


This event, although it includes the word “examination,” the aim is to advertise Ofunato’s specialty, the 秋刀魚, (‘Sanma’ = Pacific saury) to people in and outside of the city. Ofunato prides the best Sanma and promotes themselves as such, with data stating Ofunato as the city that’s pulls in the most Sanma in all of本州 (‘Honshu’ = main land Japan) under their belt.


But I digress. The event consists of two parts. First, the hands-on learning part, and second, a short lecture course followed by the actual exam. Now, before you say “NO” to the word “exam,” let me say that there is absolutely nothing to fear. The Ofunato Tourism & Local Products Association, the group which organizes this event, do wish for the examinees to become a Sanma griller, serve the grilled Sanma to friends and families or even customers, and ultimately promote Sanma. But on top of it all, their main purpose is to have you taste the Sanma firsthand and to create a space where you converse with fellow participants and locals. I’ll touch upon my experience later in the article, but for now, allow me to say that the exam is very straight forward and the lecture they give before the test will provide you wtih plenty of time and tips for the 20-question multiple choice exam.


But enough of the exams and so forth. The real question is: “Is if fun?”, “Did it taste good? and, “Is it worth it?” To those question, I will answer with a big… YES!!


It was honestly an experience you won’t get elsewhere, also, the fact that this event is run by a local group and not a fancy tourism company is why I think it makes the experience even better. The Sanma used during the event were Sanma that were pulled out of the waters of Iwate last year, and kept frozen with care for this day. (Note: Usually, Sanma are caught around the late-summer to early-autumn period, but peak timing of Sanma seem to be delayed due to environmental changes. Recently, it is said that Sanma pulled during October and to November is when the bigger sizes and best quality Sanma are pulled to make the Sanma crisp on the outside and juicy and savory in the inside when grilled.)


Hopefully I haven’t made you hungry yet because I’ve only begun!

After the initial short lecture, we were taken outside where the crew had 3 BBQ grills set up with charcoals fired up. With the Master Sanma Grilling Chef showing and explaining the cooking process, we took turns to grill it ourselves as sub-masters standing by each BBQ grill helped us. (I later learned that the sub-masters and master present that day has had experiences of grilling hundreds of Sanma, close to a thousand for some, in one day during festivals held in the past!) Now, I won’t go into details of the grilling process to avoid ruining any future experiences, and instead share one of the lessons the master taught us:

“Don’t move the Sanma around once its placed on the grill. Wait patiently…”


For those experienced in BBQs or those who cook themselves may have noticed, but when using a BBQ grill, people tend to move their food around with their tongs so the heat is evenly distributed and/or also try to peer underneath to see if its cooked. Not just once, not just twice, but quite a few times. Sanma, same as any fish, is very delicate and moving it around while grilling will cause the shape to crumble and/or the skin to rip unnaturally. For a professional, how it looks when cooked, as well as how it looks while its cooking is very important as their main purpose is to sell them at food stands.


So, Sanma are said to be relatively fatty compared to other fish. Although that may not be entirely false, the truth is that the fishermen aim to catch Sanma at the timing when they get ready for winter. What this means is that the fat stored for winter helps to make the meat juicy. But this also means that when grilling, the excess fat seeps out and slowly drips, which, after a certain amount of time, ignites the charcoal to create flames. Unlike meat which can be roughed up or even intentionally cooked with flames to give burnt ends, but as I mentioned earlier, fish are delicate and can quickly burn when cooked in the flame. In order to avoid this, what the master taught us was to:

“Cook the Sanma using heat, not the flame.”


But what exactly do you do? The flames ignite periodically and you aren’t supposed to move the fish… The answer, eliminate the root cause. “Extinguish the flames.” I was caught by surprise when I hear this because for some reason this hadn’t once crossed my mind to extinguish a flame just to maintain the quality of the food.

Any who, what you do is quite simple. When you see a flame ignite that is big enough to burn the Sanma, you go ahead and pour a bit of water to put it out. Now, I will warn you that its easier said than done, since you need to be careful not to pour it on the Sanma.


Aside from the putting out the flame, the master gave us 3 tips to look out for when grilling Sanma. 1. When the fins prop up and turns slightly golden, is when you should get ready to flip over the Sanma. 2. When you start seeing the outline of the Sanma turn golden, that’s when you flip it over. 3. Don’t overcook till its burnt, but remember that the first side you cook will face down on the plate when served, so don’t be afraid to slightly overcook it.


Lastly, I would like to share one of the most memorable statement the master told us:

“80% of grilling Sanma is done in the preparation process.”

Initially, I had guessed that the importance of the preparation consisted of picking out the best Sanma, but although that may not be entirely incorrect, he had mentioned several other ways to properly prepare before grilling. For example: setting up the charcoal correctly, knowing how the heat flows in the pit, using long tongs when grilling Sanma, being sure to keep water for yourself as well as to put out the flames, keeping a towel or cloth of some kind to cover your head, etc. But these don’t seem too important… when grilling Sanma right?


Wrong!! Well, perhaps if you are just cooking 1 or 2 it may not sound too significant, maybe you can stretch it and grill 5 or 6 as well. But for the master and sub-masters the number of Sanma they grill at festivals are on a different scale. Hundreds at times and even close to a thousand as well. Being to prepare for those amounts and making sure everything is ready when you start cooking is what is important for them. As people pass by or possibly wait in line for the Sanma to be cooked, they will almost always see the griller whether they like it or not. And at that moment, if it looks like you don’t know what you’re doing, or seem like you’re having trouble due to a missed preparation, there is a chance that you may start losing customers and ultimately fade away. The key during festivals is to have a consistent number of customers throughout the day and one mistake can cost them severely.


In all honesty, it didn’t strike me to be all that important at first. Rather, I took it as common sense more than anything. But hearing these words as you slowly grill the fish yourself, you come to realize that these preparations are the build-up from past experiences and that you too are in line to take on the advises passed-on from previous Sanma Grillers.


But I digress, once again. In conclusion, what I would like to say is that these kinds of experiences are indeed what makes going out to the suburbs and attending these events so fascinating and enjoyable. Speaking directly to locals and spending time that is unique to anyone who has attended or anyone who will attend in the future, and thinking back to understand the deepness of Japan and its culture and taking part in it firsthand, is what makes traveling such a memorable event.


Unfortunately, this is an event that is held once a year with a slightly difficult application process. BUT, if you are willing to go through the trouble to attend and experience this magnificent event, please feel free to reach out to me and I will be more than happy to help! (Usually held mid-July with application process beginning in June.)



さんま焼き師認定試験体験 ~講座、試験、試食!!