All recipes are for 2 servings unless noted. Oil is canola oil and salt is kosher salt.


Nerimono no shionuki / desalinating fishcakes

Desalinating fishcakes? What???
I did not know you can desalinate fishcakes until I read Karushio Reshipi [Lightly Salted Recipes], an eye-opening cookbook by the National Cerebral and Cardiovascular Center.
Fishcakes generally contain a high amount of sodium, and I had simply thought that we should limit consumption or avoid them all together.

A simple process of boiling fishcakes for 1-2 minutes and letting them sit in the same water for some time can eliminate most of their sodium.

Soaking time varies by size and type of fishcakes. The National Cerebral and Cardiovascular Center's cookbook suggests soaking for 15-20 minutes. My experiments show that soaking for 10 minutes is usually enough with heavier fishcakes that do not float on the surface of water and remain immersed.

When fishcakes are first cut into smaller pieces, the desalination process is faster.
Fishcakes that float in water, such as hanpen, take longer to desalinate. In my experiment, soaking a whole hanpen for 60+ minutes achieves similar desalination results as satsumaage (which sinks in water) after 15-20 minutes. Floating-type fishcakes also need to be immersed while boiling and soaking for efficient desalination.

Desalination can be done ahead of time. Remove fishcakes from water, and keep in the fridge until use.


More about fishcakes and my desalination experiments

To make fishcakes, salt is added to ground fish to get a supple, resilient texture (salt solubilizes myofibrillar protein, which facilitates setting as a gel).
Here are examples of fishcakes and their sodium content.

Kamaboko fishcake

Kamaboko, Kibun
830 mg sodium/whole cake (85 g)

Satsumaage deep-fried fishcake

Satsuma Age, Shirakiku
230 mg sodium/piece (37.5 g)

Chikuwa broiled tube-shaped fishcake

Takebue, Kibun
240 mg sodium/piece (31 g)
Hanpen boiled fishcake

Hanpen, Kibun
505 mg sodium/piece (55 g)

Fried fish and tofu cake

Uogashiage, Kibun
165 mg sodium/piece (50 g)

Desalination experiments

According to my quick calculations of an oden recipe in the cookbook, desalination reduces the sodium content by approximately 90%. Responding to my inquiry, the hospital's clinical nutrition department said that there was no general desalination ratio but a number similar to results in the cookbook should be achieved if I followed their methods. The department also suggested checking the sodium content after desalination with a sodium meter, so I did.

Sodium meter (EISHIN EB-158P): Measures level of sodium content as a percentage (0.0%-5.0%) in food; it may be far less accurate than the hospital's sophisticated $1,600 sodium meter, but it is good enough to give you some idea.

The numbers below are not absolute, as measurements were done with regular kitchen tools and are subject to possible error in the sodium meter’s readings. Sodium content of samples before desalination is based on each product’s label.

1. Kamaboko 
(Sample contained 459 mg/4 slices)

Microwaved 4 slices in 100cc water, covered, for 1 minute, and let sit (covered while water is still hot and could evaporate). 
Checked sodium level of water (assuming that sodium in kamaboko escapes into water) every 5 minutes.

In 5 minutes, water's sodium level showed 0.3% (translates into approx. 295mg sodium), and it went up to 0.4% (394 mg) in 7 minutes.
The sodium level remained the same afterward (last checked after 20 minutes).

2. Satsumaage 
(Sample contained 230 mg sodium/37.5g piece)

Microwaved whole piece of satsumaage in 100 cc water (covered) for 1 minute, and let sit (covered while water is still hot and could evaporate).

Checked sodium content of water every 5 minutes.
At 10 minutes, the sodium meter indicated 0.2% (197 mg).

Also tested with quartered satsumaage in the same manner.
As expected, the sodium meter indicated 0.2% in 5 minutes of soaking.

3. Hanpen
(Sample contained 505 mg sodium/55 g piece)

Basically measured using the same method as kamaboko and satsumaage, except that hanpen was pressed down with another lightweight container while boiling and soaking.

The sodium meter indicated 0.2% (197 mg) in 5 minutes, 0.3% (295 mg) in 15 minutes, 0.4% (394 mg) in 35 minutes, and 0.5% (490 mg) in 70 minutes.

When hanpen was allowed to float while boiling and then immersed while soaking, it took 20 minutes to reach 0.2%, 80 minutes to hit 0.3%, and 5 hours to climb to 0.4%.

(Last updated: February 4, 2014)


Anonymous said...

I am impressed with your experiments. Very scientific and useful. I don't add much salt when I cook, but I must have been enjoying the salty taste in nerimono. I never thought of desalinating fishcake.

I have been enjoying your beautiful blog for a month now. Thank you so much.

Keiko from Merer Island, WA

neco said...

Hi Keiko,
Thank you for the comment. These are nothing but a layperson’s kitchen experiments for peace of mind. I had never thought about desalinating fishcakes either until Tom got sick last year. Among fishcakes, kamaboko tends to easily lose its flavor when desalinated (especially after soaking for more 5 minutes or so). We desalinate cured meat too – simply quickly boiling (no soaking needed) eliminates a large portion of sodium in bacon, ham and such. The flavor becomes very mild, so this may not be for those who love to eat them. But they provide enough depth when used in soup or stew.


this is one of the best articles on eating consciously i have read in a while. thank you for teaching me so much today; the impact you will permanently make in my kitchen prep world cannot be measured. best wishes~