Friday, March 17, 2017

the fascinating world of niboshi

You can hardly discuss Japanese cuisine without mentioning niboshi, the dried baby sardines used in making one of the most common varieties of dashi, the ubiquitous soup stock that flavors such a great variety of Japanese foods.

Here's a Wikipedia link, but if you just google niboshi (also called iriko), you'll find so much more information than Wiki offers about this little package of big flavor.

Even so, I wouldn't have been inspired to paint an etegami of these bone-dry, misshapen creatures if I hadn't met someone on Instagram who lives and breathes niboshi.

When I say she lives and breathes niboshi, I mean she's stuck in a room full of them all day, every day. It turns out that she married into a family that produces kanbutsu, a catch-all term that means dried foods used in traditional Japanese cooking, such as vegetables, seaweed, noodles, and fish. I get the impression that the main product her family business deals with is niboshi. For seventeen years she has sorted  thousands of these dried fish each day, picking out the occasional rock or wrong sort of fish that gets overlooked during the several stages of preparing these things for the market.
a typical bag of niboshi

As is true of so many businesses that produce traditional products, the customer base of my friend's company has aged and dwindled without being successfully replaced by the next generation-- a generation that prefers Western food culture. Other companies in the same boat have tried attracting younger customers by developing westernized versions of niboshi recipes and printing them on the backs of their packages. But cooking is not a talent my friend feels she has. Alas.

So. What can she do to help out the family business? She thought about all the funny-looking fish and other odd things she comes across while sorting niboshi every day, and it occurred to her that people might get a kick out of seeing pictures of them on Instagram. At least it would help publicize this traditional food product to those who are unfamiliar with it.

That's how her Niboshi Monster photos were born. She finds fish babies -- not just sardines but other sea creatures that get mixed in and have to be sorted out-- and she arranges them into scenes that tell a story. I'm totally hooked on them, and eagerly await each new photo.

The best I can do is share the following photos-of-her-photos, but you can see them much better if you click here to go to her page on Instagram.

baby sardines attack baby perch of some sort (Apogon semilineatus)

baby perch of some sort (Apogon lineatus?) blowing fish eyeball "bubbles"

baby barracuda with fish eyeball "pearls" on scallop shell


  1. Hilarious! That is creative thinking. I will be sure to follow her. It's hard to believe that the market for niboshi would be dwindling. They are so delicious!

  2. I don't think I could do things with fish eyes like this. I'm kind of torn between ewww and laughing at your friend's creativity :) Love your sardine painting.