Shirasu is the Japanese word for "whitebait," or the immature fry of fish. It's generally used to refer to baby Japanese anchovies, but it can be used for other fish as well. Although they can be eaten raw when very fresh, they spoil quickly, so most shirasu is boiled in saltwater and frozen for distribution around Japan. Some of these are also dried, which changes their name to shirasuboshi or chirimen (depending on how dried they are).
This easy pasta is deceptively delicious. To be honest, I was pretty dismissive of the idea of using cabbage in pasta when I first moved to Japan, but after trying it once, I was sold. Cabbage is loaded with amino acids, which creates the taste of umami, and it's also sweet when cooked. When you pair it with something briny like shirasu (or even salted anchovies), it creates a marvelous contrast in taste and takes the umami in the fish to the next level.
In this preparation, a generous amount of olive oil gets infused with garlic and dried chilies, then by adding starchy pasta water, you can create a rich emulsion that becomes the sauce for the pasta. This is essentially the technique used to make the Neapolitan dish Spaghetti Aglio e Olio. Add to that the shirasu and cabbage, and you end up with a sublimely satisfying meal that comes together in the time it takes to boil the spaghetti.
- 200 grams pasta
- 12 grams garlic smashed
- chili pepper flakes optional
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 75 grams shirasu
- 200 grams cabbage
- Bring a pot of moderately salted water to a boil with just enough water to cook the type of pasta you're making. The goal here is to end up with a starchy liquid we can use for the sauce, so contrary to popular wisdom, you want to use as little water as possible. Since we are using the water in the sauce, it shouldn't be much saltier than soup, or your finished pasta will be too salty. Boil the pasta according to the package directions.
- About 5 minutes before the pasta is done, heat the olive oil and garlic in a frying pan over medium heat and fry the garlic until very fragrant. You can remove it at this point, but I usually just leave it in.
- Add chili flakes if you like, and then spoon a ladleful of the pasta boiling liquid into the oil (be careful as it may spatter). Turn up the heat to bring this mixture to a rolling boil and whisk to emulsify the oil and water.
- About two minutes before the pasta is done, add the cabbage to the pasta.
- When the pasta is done, add the shirasu to the sauce. Then transfer the pasta and cabbage directly into the pan with the sauce. Add more pasta water to the pan if needed (the noodles should appear wet), and toss everything together to coat evenly.