1. Feb, 2018

“Patience can cook a stone.” – Lemba proverb.

 

Achaar. A piquant, spicy relish usually made from unripe mango.

Afval. The head, tongue, stomach and trotters of a sheep stewed with new potatoes in a mild curry sauce.

AK47. A “foot long” bun filled with fish and chips, which can also contain polony, egg and even calamari.

Amadumbe. Also called the African potato, it is the starchy bulb of the “Elephant’s Ear” plant.

Amakhekhe (aka AmaPotchefstroom). Kasi-style scones, eaten without additives like cream of jam.

Amanqina. The hoof/trotter of a cow, pig or sheep. It is first boiled, then spiced for taste.

Amarula. A cream liqueur made from the ripe fruit of the Morula tree.

Amasi. Soured cow’s milk.

Askoek. Soda bread cooked over a fire or in the hot ashes, hence the name meaning “ash cake”.

Bacalhau. Codfish first cured with coarse salt, then sun-dried. It can be stored indefinitely at ambient temperatures, with no bacteria or mould able to grow on the highly saline dried cod fish.

Beskuit. (Eng. Rusk). A hard, dry biscuit with a long shelf life, usually dunked into coffee.

Biltong. Literally translated from Dutch it means “Buttock Tongue”. Dried strips of beef, game or ostrich. A much-loved snack.

Biryani (aka breyani). A spicy Indian meat or vegetarian dish with rice incorporated. Not strictly speaking a “curry”.

Blatjang. Chutney made with chunky fruit and spices.

Blindevinkies. In English literally “blind finches”; a Boerekos version of Beef Olives.

Bobotie. A dish of Cape Malay descent; essentially a spicy cottage pie containing raisins and egg. It is often served with yellow rice, sambals, coconut, banana slices, and chutney.

Boereklonge. Whole grapes preserved in brandy.

Boerewors. A robust sausage, usually coarse-ground, containing beef and pork that is traditionally braaied over open coals.

Boerewors Roll. A hot dog bun filled with braaied boerewors and onion and tomato relish.

Bogobe. A porridge popular among the BaTswana and BaPedi, made with a mixture of fermented sorghum and mealie meal.

Bokkoms. Mullet brined and then sun-dried with guts and all.

Braai. Cooking meat over a fire is more than just a variation of barbecue; it is a way of life.

Braaibroodjies. Sandwiches containing cheese, tomato and onion, braaied over open coals.

Bubende (aka Ubende). The Zulu version of Black Pudding – tripe stewed in blood.

Bunny Chow. Curry in a hollowed-out bread loaf, eaten with fingers using bits of bread to scoop up the filling. Originated in host city Durban when black workers weren't allowed into restaurants.

Chakalaka. A spicy relish based on tomato, onion, carrots and chilli, and often baked beans.

Chotlo. A Tswana delicacy: boneless meat cut into extremely small pieces which are boiled, then ground before being put back into the pot and stirred until it becomes very fine 

Chutney. Known as blatjang in Afrikaans, it is a sweet, spicy fruit relish.

Denningvleis. A Cape Malay classic. Stewed lamb flavoured with tamarind seed.

Dhaltjies. Ball­ shaped Malay snacks made with chickpea flour, spinach, onion and turmeric and deep-fried in hot oil.

Dikahare. Basotho-style offal dish made with beef stomach, intestines and lungs.

Dikgadika. Pork rind crackling, similar to kaiings. Traditionally eaten with phutu or bogobe.

Dombolo. Kasi-style steamed dumplings.

Durban Curry. A locally-evolved recipe; hotter than most Indian curries. It is coloured red with tomatoes and cayenne pepper, and usually served with rice and condiments such as chutney, sambals and poppadums.

Eisbein. Pickled pork knuckle, which is either boiled or deep-fried.

Flattie. A spatchcocked chicken, usually grilled or braaied with a marinade or peri-peri.

Frikkadel. A savoury meatball. Frikkadels are also made from minced perlemoen (abalone) in the Southern Cape.

Gatsby. Mainly eaten in and around Cape Town, it consists of a long hot dog roll with fillings of anything ranging from polony to chicken or fish and hot chips.

Haaksel. Similar to pluck; the organ meat of a slaughtered animal.

Hertzoggies. Small sweet pastries with a coconut and apricot jam filling. Named after the late Prime Minister, Genl. JBM Hertzog.

Hoenderpastei. Chicken pie, a traditional Afrikaans dish.

Isidudu. Porridge made from pumpkin.

Jerepiko. A fortified sweet red wine.

Kaiings. Pieces of pork rind fried until crispy in rendered fat. Traditionally eaten on pap.

Karringmelk. Buttermilk.

Katkop. Half a loaf of bread, hollowed out and filled with hot chips.

Kerrievis. Portions of fish pickled in a Cape Malay curry sauce.

Koeksusters. Braided pastries, deep-fried and heavily sweetened with syrup.

Koolfrikadelle. Meatballs wrapped and cooked in cabbage leaves, dolmades-style.

Kop en Pens. A sheep’s head boiled in its stomach.

Korma. A mild, creamy curry flavoured with cashew nuts and butter, made with either meat, chicken or vegetables. 

Kota. A sandwich made from a hollowed-out quarter loaf of bread, containing a spicy filling and often a Russian sausage or polony and some chips.

Kuite. Whole fish roe sacs, poached or fried whole.

LM Prawns. Prawns imported from Mozambique; named after Lourenço Marques (now Maputo).

Mabele. Ground sorghum, an indigenous relative of quinoa.

Mageu/Mahleu. A drink made from fermented mealie pap.

Mala Mogodu. Stewed beef tripe. It is usually eaten with hot phutu and morogo.

Malay Curry. A mild curry, combining sweet and savoury flavours--using sweet spices like cinnamon and ginger, dried fruit (especially dried apricots), garlic and onions.

Malvapoeding. A sweet spongy dessert of Dutch origin, which became popular all over the world after Oprah Winfrey featured it on her show.

Mampoer. Eau de vie distilled from wild or deciduous fruit.

Masonya. Dried Mopani worms. They are usually soaked, and then stewed with tomato and onions.

Mektert. A milk-based tart or dessert.

Melkkos. A dessert consisting of flour dumplings cooked in milk.

Midundo. Kasi-style vetkoek filled with spicy mince.

Mieliebrood. A sweet bread made with minced sweetcorn.

Millet. A small-grained, annual cereal belonging to grass family. They were consumed as food and in alcoholic brews by Black South Africans before the introduction of maize.

Morogo. Also known as wild spinach. Foraged, normally from Amaranthus plants.

Moskonfyt. A jam made with grape must (the skins, pulp, pips and dregs of the juice left after pressing).

Muscadel. A sweet white fortified wine.

Naan. A flat Indian bread. They come in different flavours, including butter and garlic. Best eaten fresh from the oven.

Pampoenkoekies. Pumpkin fritters, flavoured with cinnamon and sugar.

Pão/pãozinho. Portuguese-style bun; pãozinho is a smaller version of the former.

Pap/Phutu. A thick maize porridge which is a staple across Southern Africa. Pap and meat is often served as takeaways on sidewalks.

Paptert. A lasagne-like dish made with layers of pap instead of pasta sheets.

Paratha. A thin, tortilla-like flatbread used to wrap or sop saucy Indian dishes. Similar to the Malay roti.

Peri-peri. Known as piri-piri in Mozambique, it is a fiery sauce based on olive oil and bird’s eye chillies.

Pienangvleis. Named after the island city of Penang, it is a mild Cape Malay beef curry.

Pinotage. A red grape cultivar which evolved in South Africa. It is a hybrid of Pinot Noir from Burgundy and Hermitage (Cinsaut) from the Rhône Valley.

Pofadderwors. A thick sausage made by stuffing chunks of game or mutton liver, heart and kidneys into the animal’s large intestine, along with seasoning and sheep fat.

Polisiekoffie. Brandy and Coke.

Potbrood. A savoury bread baked over coals in cast-iron pots.

Potjiekos. A traditional Afrikaans stew, made with meat and vegetables and cooked in a three-legged cast-iron pot over coals.

Prego. Mozambican steak sandwich, with the steak smothered in a fiery red sauce and encased in a fresh Pão bun.

Raita. A mixture of plain yoghurt and grated cucumber, eaten with very hot curries to mitigate the burn.

Rissois. Portuguese-style pastries, usually with a creamy seafood or chicken filling.

Rooibostee. A tea made with the dried, fermented leaves of the indigenous rooibos ("red bush"; Aspalathus linearis).

Roosterkoek. A sour dough bun cooked over a campfire.

Roti. A thin, tortilla-like flatbread used to wrap or sop saucy Malay dishes. Similar to Indian paratha.

Sadza. Zimbabwean mealie porridge.

Sambals. Chopped onion, sweet peppers and tomato, mixed with lime juice and chopped coriander leaves. A traditional accompaniment to curry.

Samosa/samoosa. A savoury pastry with a spicy filling that is deep-fried.

Samp. Crushed dry maize, soaked and then cooked until soft. Often combined with dried sugar beans.

Shark Biltong. Salted and dried strips of Jaws & Co.

Shisanyama. IsiZulu for “hot meat”, this is the Black African version of a braai. Diners select raw meat cuts, often to braai themselves in shops or restaurants.

Sishebo. Savoury gravy eaten with phutu.

Skilpadjies. Lamb's liver wrapped in caul fat and braaied over hot coals.

Skokiaan. Home-brewed township “moonshine”.

Slaphakskeentjies. A tart salad made with cooked baby onions.

Smileys. Sheep heads par-cooked and roasted with the heat exposing the sheep's teeth into a grin or smile. Usually found at taxi ranks and downtown city markets.

Smoorsnoek. Cured Snoek simmered with onions, potatoes and tomatoes and a hint of curry.

Sosatie. Cubes of meat marinated in a curry sauce, braaied on a skewer.

Sousboontjies. Home-made baked beans.

Souskluitjies. Dessert consisting of large dumplings baked in a spicy cream- of milk-based sauce.

Soutribbetjie. Mild-cured lamb rib, slowly braaied until the meat is crispy.

Spatlo (aka Kota) A sandwich made from a hollowed-out quarter loaf of bread, containing a spicy filling and often a Russian sausage or polony and some chips.

Speenvark. Suckling piglet, usually slow-roasted over open coals on a rotating spit.

Streepmuis. Soda bread cooked on a grid over a fire. The name (Eng. “striped mouse”) comes from the scorch marks made by the grid.

Sult. Curried pork brawn.

Tamatiebredie. A traditional Cape Dutch stew made with mutton and tomatoes.

Ting. A Tswana staple; stiff porridge made from fermented mabele (sorghum).

Tjokka. Afrikaans for Squid/Calamari.

Trinchado. A Mozambican dish of steak cubes stewed in a hot, spicy sauce.

ubuSulu. Wine made with the sap of the iLala palm tree.

Ulusu. A stew of animal stomachs.

Umbona. Braaied mealies on the cob.

Umngqusho. A stew made with beans, samp, beef, onion, tomato and green pepper.

Umphokoqo. A traditional Xhosa dish of phutu and fermented milk.

Umqombothi. A beer made from fermented maize and sorghum. Nelson Mandela’s favourite beverage.

Umsila Wenkomo. Xhosa-style oxtail stew.

Umvubo. Sour milk mixed with dry pap, commonly eaten by the Xhosa.

Utshewele. Toasted mealie kernels.

Utshwala. Traditional African sorghum beer.

Vaaljapie. Cheap dry white wine sold in bulk to farmers for use under the “dop” system.

Vetkoek/Amagwinya. Balls of deep fried bread dough. Served plain as street food but also can have sweet or savoury fillings.

Walkie Talkies. Cooked chicken feet and heads – called “Kop en Skop” in some parts. The feet are also known as "runaways".

Waterblommetjiebredie. A mutton stew containing the flowers of the Cape pond weed (Aponogeton distachyos).

Witblits. Eau de vie distilled from grapes.

 

“The food here is terrible, and the portions are too small!” – Woody Allen.

 

13. Jan, 2018

“Food is to a large extent what holds society together, and eating is closely linked to deep spiritual experiences.” – Peter Farb.

 

The key to understanding South African food is to be found in the complex, multi-cultural history of Southern Africa since the arrival of Black people from north of the Limpopo and Whites from Europe. Our collective past contains a dazzling array of African, European and Asian traditions, and many popular dishes are products of the interaction between successive waves of new arrivals.

When Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape in 1488, there were three resident communities in what is today the Western Cape: the Strandlopers (“beachcombers”), Khoi (referred to as Hottentots or – pejoratively – Hotnots by the settlers) and San (Bushmen to the Dutch). The former was ethnically similar to the Khoi, but were hunter-gatherers while the latter were pastoralists. Judging by the midden heaps they left behind, Strandlopers dined on mussels, limpets, perlemoen, crayfish and seals, and for “vegetables” they foraged for edible roots and tubers, wild fruit and certain kinds of seaweed. They also built ingenious dry-stone fish traps, known as vywers, in the inter-tidal zone. During high tide these “kraals” were submerged, and on the ebb fish like Mullet, Elf and Galjoen were often trapped in them.  

The Khoi kept cattle and sheep, and so meat and dairy products were the basis of their diet. A favourite meal consisted of kaiings – crispy-fried sheep tail fat – mixed with wild cabbage. The San were hunter-gatherers like the Standlopers, but specialised in living off the hinterland, as opposed to the coastline. They needed neither seafood nor domesticated animals as long as game was abundant, which it was in those days; even on the Cape Peninsula itself. Their diet consisted of buck, rodents and reptiles, as well as birds and their eggs. The women also collected veldkos (edible wild plants and fruits).

With the arrival of White settlers, several new influences were introduced: European food culture, the Asian cuisines of Oriental slaves and – very importantly – ready access to spices. Since many VOC officials had served in “Batavia” (Indonesia), they brought their nannies and cooks with them. This quickly led to “fusion” food incorporating indigenous as well as exotic elements, like tamatiebredie (a highly seasoned, slow-cooked mutton and tomato stew stew) and waterblommetjiebredie (made with mutton and the flowers of the Cape pond weed).

Of particular interest was the evolution of bobotie – a marriage of Dutch-style cottage pie with local fruit and almonds, chutney and Malay-style aromatic spices. Another poster child of the Boerekos genre with East Indian DNA is the sosatie (a spicy meat kebab). It is a direct descendant of the kebabs eaten in the Indonesian archipelago, and can insist of beef, mutton and/or pork – sometimes chicken – marinated in a spicy sweet-and-sour sauce. The original sauce was made from fried onions, chillies, garlic, sugar, curry leaves and tamarind paste.

As the small victualling station in Table Bay expanded into a full-blown colony, some of its more restless residents started venturing north and east. The Namaqualand and Karoo to the north were harsh, inhospitable badlands, so most white trekboere (homesteaders) sought their fortune in the verdant, water-rich East of the Colony. It was only a matter of time before they collided with the amaXhosa, who had made their home in the latter-day Eastern Cape.

The Xhosa tribes, like their Zulu kinfolk, practiced a combination of pastoralism and tillage (both cereals and vegetables). With both sides land-hungry people with martial cultures, war over land ownership was inevitable. It took a century and nine “wars” before the Xhosa were finally subdued. Missionaries and traders played important roles in the process of subjugation by introducing the tribesmen to Western religion and culture, as well as the monetary economy. By the end of the 19th Century many Xhosa people were literate Christians who adopted Western modes of dress and cooking. Many of today’s Kasi (township) dishes are descended from to food eaten by Westernised Xhosa and Mfengo families.

As mentioned earlier, numerous other cultures and cuisines have subsequently influenced what we eat and drink today, but the basis of pan-South African cuisine had been laid – with one notable exception: the arrival of Indian indentured labourers and traders in the second half of the 19th Century. In the rest of this chapter I would like to share some insights into some of our country’s best-known ethnic cuisines, along with recipes for some of their signature dishes. It is by no means a comprehensive omnibus; rather an amuse-bouche of interesting titbits.

Black African cuisine

Black Africans make up the vast majority of South Africa’s population, but centuries of segregation and social Darwinism have prevented their cultures from receiving the same attention and recognition as those of Westerners. Blacks were also the victims of cultural imperialism; the notion that European cultures were inherently superior to theirs. This is especially true in the culinary environment – the urban bourgeoisie’s diet has been predominantly European, with even Indian food being fat better known and liked than traditional African fare.

There are four main groups of Black African cultures in South Africa. The largest is the Nguni (comprising of the Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi and Ndebele), followed by the Sotho (consisting of the South Sotho, Pedi and Tswana), the Tsonga-Shangaan and the Venda. The Nguni, Tsonga-Shangaan and Venda settled in the warm sub-tropical East of the country, and the Sotho on the High veld of the central and western interior. By the end of the 18th Century these nations had settled down more or less in their current locations. Although there are numerous cultural and linguistic differences between them, they have enough in common to describe their cuisines and diets collectively.

The cuisines of the Black peoples of South Africa have their roots in pre-colonial lifestyles. When the Bantu speakers of Central Africa moved across the Limpopo around a thousand years ago, they brought with them cattle and grain crops. During this epoch, most communities combined livestock farming and agriculture with hunting and foraging. Archaeological finds in Limpopo province indicate that agriculture was already being practiced in the Levuvhu river valley in the 11th Century. The polities of Mapungubwe and Thulamela used a wide variety of bulbs, leaves, berries, fruits, vegetables and cereals in their everyday cooking. Game was plentiful, and venison was a staple. Because cattle were seen as storers of wealth, beef was only eaten on special occasions. Dairy products were however consumed daily. Long before they encountered Whites, therefore, African communities subsisted on a cuisine comprised of cooked porridge, stewed or braaied meat, boiled vegetables, sour milk and fermented grain beverages.

Because of the economic and status value attached to cattle, beef enjoyed superior status to other meats. Apart from venison, chicken and goat meat were often eaten in the day-to-day context. Only on special occasions like weddings, funerals and coronations were cattle and/or sheep slaughtered and eaten. Because the animal was so valuable, no part of it was wasted. The head, organ meat, intestines and stomach were all eaten, and dishes based on these cuts remain popular in black communities to this day. Sheep heads (aka smileys) and afval (tripe) have become cult foods, eaten with equal gusto by the township poor and affluent people in trendy restaurants.

The only written accounts of African life before 1652 were ship’s logs, the diaries of sailors and – mainly – the memoirs of shipwreck survivors. The most important crops mentioned in these were millet, sorghum, beans, melons, calabashes (wild pumpkins) and peanuts. Morogo is also frequently mentioned, but this was foraged – never cultivated. Amadumbe was already a popular starch food among the Ngunis encountered on the East Coast by the 17th Century. It was clear that foraging was an important source of nourishment as well. Apart from wild fruit and vegetables, other delicacies gathered in the wild included Mopani worms, locusts, termites, edible beetles and grubs, birds’ eggs and – most prized – honey.

The introduction of maize to Southern Africa in the 19 Century had a massive impact on African communities - highly positive at first. It not only raised the yields of farmlands, but provided villagers with filling, energising food. It soon became a staple; as dry phutu (porridge) or with milk at lunchtime, and as the starch with meat and vegetables at dinnertime. Mealies were not just ground for meal; they were also roasted over a fire, boiled whole or fermented to make beer. Sadly, the value of maize as a crop were to backfire on rural Blacks. In years to come White commercial farmers would do all they could to ensure a ready supply of cheap Black farm labour by forcing African communities into overcrowded "tribal trust lands" and taxing them so that men had only to options to earn money: work on farms or the mines.

Apartheid and the "segregation" that preceded it largely destroyed the African way of life. Crammed into "locations" and "homelands", there was little room to practice traditional agriculture or animal husbandry. The ability to supplement one's diet by hunting and foraging quickly disappeared, and earning a wage became the key to survival. To do so, some families migrated to cities and towns while others stayed in rural areas, but men went to work in factories and mines as single migrant labourers. The hard times under Apartheid saw the emergence of a resilient class of urban workers who adapted to their new environment as best they could, and developed a sub-culture of their own. This was reflected in the hybrid language they spoke, as well as in the food they ate. Their cooking style became known as Kasi food: from lokasie (Afrikaans for “location” or “Black township”).

Kasi cuisine is fascinating: on the one hand it is authentically African, but on the other it shows how much our different ethnic cuisines have in common. The best examples are shisanyama and braaivleis, followed by the smiley (intloko yemvu) and skaapkop. Amagwinya and vetkoek are peas in a pod, so are the kota and bunny chow. One man's u/uso is another man's tripe and most of us adore fried sheep liver. Two Kasi favourites that I have yet to develop a taste for are amanqina enkukhu or "walkie talkies" (chicken feet) and umqombothi - maize and sorghum beer. Township food is not merely a down-market variation on boerekos. It reflects the struggle of communities to.put appetising food on the table despite poverty and oppression, while still adhering to one's cultural roots and history. It remains an important part of the cultural mix and vibe that makes South Africa special.

Uluso/Mogudu. If I had to select one Kasi dish that encapsulates the best of Black African cuisine, it would be this beef tripe dish.

 

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 7 hours

Serves 6

 

1kg Tripe, cleaned

350g Tinned chakalaka (spicy tomato relish)

150g Bacon bits

3 Garlic cloves, chopped

1 Medium onion, finely chopped

1 Large carrot, peeled and finely chopped

1 Celery stalk, finely chopped

450ml Lager beer

2 Cups water

½ Tbsp. sunflower oil

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper for seasoning

 

  • Pre-cook the tripe for 2 hours in salted water.
  • Drain and rinse the tripe, then boil for another 3 hours in fresh salted water with a dash of spirit vinegar.
  • Drain the tripe and allow it to cool.
  • Cut it into bite-sized strips.
  • Sauté the bacon and garlic in the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat.
  • Add the onion, carrot and celery, and continue sautéing until the vegetables are nice and soft.
  • Check the seasoning, then add the pre-cooked tripe.
  • Mix it all well, and allow to simmer so that the tripe begins to absorb the flavour of the bacon and vegetables.
  • Add the beer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.
  • Add the chakalaka and water, cover and simmer until the tripe is tender but still ever so slightly chewy and the sauce well reduced, about 90 minutes.
  • Serve on samp and beans.

Boerekos

The term boerekos is generally understood to refer to the cuisine of white Afrikaners, but in my view there is so much cultural overlap between them and Afrikaans-speaking "Coloured" people that both groups can identify with it. Boerekos evolved in two environments: the genteel farming communities of the Boland (South-Western Cape) region, and the harsh, comfortless existence of the Trekboere and Voortrekkers. The former were simply itinerant livestock farmers who moved north individually in search of better pasture, while the latter were organised groups of emigrants who left the Cape Colony to escape British rule. Culturally, however, they can be regarded as the same kind of people.

Trekking into the interior was a dangerous and uncomfortable process. Furthermore, the diet was spartan, constrained by the limited ingredients available. Provisions taken along had to be durable, like flour, sugar, and dried meat and fruit, and were supplemented by foraging and hunting of fresh greens and meat. It was during this pioneering era that some of Afrikanerdom's signature foods evolved: biltong, droëwors, vetkoek (buns fried in lard), potbrood (bread baked in a pot over coals) and boerbeskuit (dried rusks). Because meat was abundant, the braai was a regular feature of life on trek. During pauses in the journey, women would bake rustic bread in ovens consisting of hollowed-out ant heaps.

Of all the foods named above, the one that is probably the most widely eaten today is biltong - not just by South Africans of all races, but by a diaspora all over the world. Who first preserved excess meat from the hunt by smearing it with spices and hanging it out to dry? In this semi-arid country, the San would almost certainly have dried a portion of meat from each kill as insurance against lean times. Black Africans too, have traditionally preserved extra meat by drying it in strips, a handy shape for dropping into a pot of stew.

The Dutch brought the recipe for tassel meat from the Old World, rubbing strips of meat with salt, pepper and coriander, covering them with vinegar to preserve them. They later added nitrate to the mix, sprinkled vinegar over and hung the meat up to dry. The Voortrekkers made of this customary food a delicacy, using venison, beef, ostrich - whatever they could find. In modern-day South Africa, it is unthinkable to watch rugby -  another Boere obsession -  without an ample supply of sliced biltong.

Another iconic South African dish developed because of migratory life: potjiekos. Its evolution started soon after the first Dutch settlers arrived at the Cape. In those days, food was cooked in an open hearth in the kitchen in a black cast-iron pot with legs so that the coals could be scraped under the pot. Later, during the era of Trekgees, meat, vegetables and spices piled into a three-legged iron pot and cooked for quite a long time over a fire was the perfect way for trek farmers to keep body and soul together.

When camp was made, meat was stewed with vegetables; depending on circumstances this could be game, mutton, goat or even old oxen. After supper the pot, its remaining contents protected by a heavy layer of fat, was hooked under the wagon when camp was struck, then unhooked at the next stop and put on the fire. More ingredients would be added to top it up. After a few days the contents of the pot looked like today's potjie: several distinct layers of meat and vegetables on top of one another. After largely disappearing after the Anglo-Boer war potjiekos experienced a revival in the 1970s, when it became a fashionable (and more exotic) alternative to the traditional braai.

Modern-day Boerekos still harks back to the pioneering days. Fundamentally it is based on Dutch cuisine, with contributions from French and German immigrant communities, enriched by a large dollop of Cape Malay, and tempered by decades of trekking. Meat is king, while fish and other seafoods do not feature as prominently as in other cuisines with European roots. This is no doubt due to the fact that most Afrikaner families have lived far from the sea for a long time. Consequently, the aristocrats of Afrikaner lunch and dinner tables include braaivleis (steak, chops, boerewors and/or sosaties), skaapboud (slow-roasted leg of lamb), bobotie, beesstert (stewed oxtail) and gammon ham.

Vegetables are prepared along the original Dutch lines; quite heavily sweetened or seasoned and incorporating generous helpings of butter and spices. Potatoes are ubiquitous, and usually roasted or mashed. Afrikaner women take justifiable pride in their puddings: these are generally superb (but generally extremely sweet!) To me, the finest examples are melktert (milk tart), koeksusters (braided pastry strips in syrup), souskluitjies (saucy dumplings) and the now internationally renowned malva pudding.

I should add that all Afrikaners are by no means traditionalists, and particularly the urban bourgeoisie has developed eclectic, cosmopolitan tastes in food. Perhaps because Apartheid and its folly were so closely associated with Afrikaner culture, many younger people have come to look down on traditional food, music and pastimes. The average urbanite has relegated things like sokkiejol (Afrikaner-style two-step dancing), boeremusiek (traditional concertina-based dance music) and boeresport (traditional games) to the dark cupboard under the stairs reserved for the terminally uncool.  And sadly, the same goes for much of the food that used to be the staple diet of many an Afrikaans family.  The two notable exceptions are of course the braai and potjiekos!

Bobotie. This is one of South Africa’s truly authentic dishes, and it is relatively easy to make. Although its roots are partly Malay, it is nowadays regarded as one of the icons of Boerekos.

 

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 2 hours

Serves 8

 

For the curry:

900g Minced lamb or beef

100g Dried apricots, chopped

50g Slivered almonds, roasted in a dry frying pan

6 Lemon, orange, or bay leaves

2 Onions, chopped

2 Slices bread, crumbled

1 Granny Smith apple; peeled, cored and chopped

1 Extra-large egg

Finely grated zest and juice of ½ lemon

60ml Full cream milk

60ml Sultana raisins

1  Tbsp. curry powder

1 Tsp. ground turmeric

1 Tbsp. sunflower oil

1 Tbsp. butter

½ Tsp. crushed garlic

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

For the topping:

1  Extra-large egg

1 Cup milk

½ Tsp. salt

  • Pre-heat your oven to 160°C.
  • Butter a large oven-proof dish; at least 30 x 20cm and 15cm deep.
  • Heat butter and oil in a saucepan over medium heat, and fry the onion and garlic until translucent.
  • Stir in the curry powder and turmeric, and cook briefly until fragrant. Remove the pot from the heat.
  • Mix in the minced meat.
  • Mix together the crumbs, milk, lemon rind and juice, egg, salt, pepper, apricots, apple, sultanas and almonds and mix into the meat mixture.
  • Transfer to the oven dish and level the top.
  • Roll up the leaves and bury them in the mince at regular intervals.
  • Seal with foil and bake for 75 minutes.
  • Meanwhile mix together the milk, eggs and salt (you may require extra topping if you've used a very large casserole).
  • Increase the oven temperature to 200°C and remove the dish from the oven.
  • Pour the topping evenly over the curry and bake, uncovered, for a further 15 minutes until cooked and lightly browned.
  • Serve with yellow rice and fruit chutney.

Cape Malay

No discussion about the cultural history of Cape Town would be complete without reference to the so-called "Cape Malays". This small, close-knit community have influenced life in the Mother City in many ways, making indelible impressions on its politics, economy, language, architecture and - especially - its cooking. Their presence in the Cape is due to the scourge of slavery, but with a twist. Most of the slaves brought to the Cape were abducted by treacherous countrymen in Africa, Asia and Madagascar, and sold to European traders, who sold them on to settlers as cheap labour. These wretches were generally unskilled and mainly performed manual tasks. The "Malays" (most of whom were in fact what would be called "lndonesians" nowadays) were not tribesmen randomly "caught" but rather nobles, intellectuals and tradesmen. Many were in fact freedom fighters!

The Dutch East India Company, or VOC, had colonized large parts of South East Asia - including the Indonesian archipelago - by the late 17th Century. Harsh European rule and especially the persecution of Muslims caused resistance, which was eventually crushed by the Dutch. Many leaders of this early anti-colonial struggle were arrested and exiled to the Cape, which was by then also occupied by the VOC. Another significant part of the Malay diaspora consisted of servants of the Dutch officials sold off in Cape Town as their masters were returning to the Netherlands from the East. The Muslim arrivals represented a welcome windfall to the colonists, as many of them were skilled artisans, such as silversmiths, tailors, cobblers, masons and cooks.

The Malays were held together and organised by respected the exiles, called orang cayen ("men of repute") like Sheikh Yusuf, and the Tuans (masters) Guru, Syed and Nurman. Thanks to their able leadership, their community retained social and religious cohesion, and prospered as much as their straitened circumstances allowed. In time they adopted the fledgling Afrikaans language as their lingua franca. One of the first examples of written Afrikaans was the translation of the Holy Koran from Arabic to Afrikaans. Ironically, it was the Malay community which kept the language pure and vibrant during the British colonial era, when many educated Afrikaners became anglicised. They contributed significantly to its vocabulary, e.g. baie (plenty), baadjie 0acket), sosatie (kebab) and piesang (banana).

A part of South African life in which the influence of Cape Malays is felt daily is cuisine. Malay food combines numerous flavours in hearty, aromatic dishes that are enjoyed around many dinner tables, across ethnic and cultural lines. Fragrant stews such as tamatiebredie, breyani and bobotie are firm favourites, as are roasts, spicy curries, and sosaties (lamb or mutton kebabs). It must be noted that Cape Malay curries are generally far milder than the Indian curries eaten further north. The aromatic nature of Cape Malay cuisine is due to a blend of spices - cumin, coriander, star anise, tamarind, cinnamon, cardamom and turmeric, to name a few - that give the food its distinctive aromatic quality. Dried fruit such as raisins and apricots are also essential additions, creating the sweet and sour flavours that complement the spices.

Cape Malay cuisine also includes plenty of fish dishes which are usually salted, curried or pickled, while homemade chutneys and achaar (pickled vegetables) serve as tasty condiments. The best place to experience Cape Malay cuisine is in the "Bo-Kaap" as the Malay Quarter is known locally. The area is characterised by steep cobble-stone streets and rainbow-colored houses, and has retained its unique character and ambience ever since it was settled by former Cape Malay slaves in the early 19th Century.

Breads are also important in Cape Malay cuisine. Rotis (pronounced "rooties") are ubiquitous. This flatbread is used to wrap up saucy dishes, as well as to mop up sauce from plates. Basmati rice and sambals, a relish likened to salsa, are served with bland dishes to spice them up and consist of grated vegetables or fruit seasoned with sugar, salt, chilies and vinegar.

Muslim celebrations like birthday parties, weddings and graduations are characterised by a dazzling array of snacks. These delicious morsels include chicken and mince samoosas, miniature rotis, mince pies, dhaltjies and half-moons. Dhaltjies are tasty ball­ shaped snacks made with chickpea flour, spinach, onion and turmeric and deep-fried in hot oil.  They are eaten either as is or dipped in chutney or sweet chili sauce. As the name suggests, half-moons are semi­ circle crispy eats made from cake flour, butter and breadcrumbs and are filled with meat, chicken or veggies.

When it comes to dessert, Cape Malay puddings are in a league of their own. Some of the numerous favourites   include   fragrant   fruit-infused   puddings    and    tarts, as    well    as    cakes, biscuits and koeksusters (spiced syrupy donuts covered in desiccated coconut), which are perfect for tea time. Boeber is a traditional sweet milk drink made with vermicelli, sago and sugar and is flavoured with cardamom, cinnamon and rose water. This delicious drink is traditionally served during Ramadan. Another delicious Cape Malay drink is falooda:a sweet rose-flavoured milkshake topped with ice cream and softened basil seeds.

Malay Fish Curry. The following recipe highlights all the things I like about the cookery of the "Bo-Kaap"; try it once and you will make it again and again. It keeps well in the fridge for up to 5 days.

 

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 45 minutes

Serves 6

 

1  Kg snoek (unsalted), yellowtail or kingklip fillets, skinned and sliced into 5cm² portions

2  Garlic cloves, crushed

3  Allspice berries

1 Large onion, finely chopped

1 Bay leaf or lemon leaf Juice of ½ lemon

1 Cup water

½ Cup cake flour for dredging the fish, plus 2 tsp. extra to thicken the sauce

½ Tbsp. sultanas

½ Tbsp. sugar

½ Tbsp. smoot apricot jam

½ Tbsp. medium curry powder 2 Tsp. spirit vinegar

1 Tsp. turmeric

Sunflower oil for frying

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper for seasoning

 

  • Heat 2 tbsp. oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat.
  • Sprinkle the fish with the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.
  • Fry the fish in the oil for 2 minutes on each side.
  • Remove it from the pan and drain on paper towel s.
  • Heat a little oil in a deep saucepan over medium heat and sauté the onion and garlic for 5 minutes.
  • Add the sultanas, curry powder and turmeric, and mix well.
  • Sprinkle with the flour and stir it in.
  • Add the water and bring to the boil, stirring continually.
  • Reduce the heat to low and add the fish, allspice and bay or lemon leaf.
  • Simmer, covered for 15 minutes.
  • Mix the vinegar, sugar and apricot jam and add to the saucepan.
  • Simmer, stirring occasionally for another 15 minutes.
  • Check the seasoning and serve immediately with rice and sambals.

Indian cuisine

An Indian friend of mine once quipped that "Durban is the most African city in India". Thanks to two waves of immigration from India in the late 19th Century- first the indentured laborers in the 1860s, followed by a merchant class who catered to this growing community - Durban is now home to one of the largest populations of ethnic Indians outside the Subcontinent. But the layered symbiosis of geography, politics, economics and the passage of time means that many South African Indians (beyond appearance) have little in common with their subcontinental cousins.

Indian cuisine in South Africa has evolved into something decidedly different from the regional cuisines of the Old Country. When Indians began arriving in Durban from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, and Karnataka in small parties, traditions and flavours that never had occasion to interact back home began coalescing on faraway shores. They found commonalities in some cultural practices and cuisines, and discarded others.

That pan-Indian influence, combined with the scarcity of familiar spices and ingredients, drove cooks to innovate with readily available produce and regional traditions, and culminated in the development of a new genre of Indian cookery. Out went the dairy, coconut milk, and hard-to-source spices like saffron; in came amaDumbe), calabashes, mealie meal, samp (dried corn kernels), and pumpkin. Lentils found their way into the folds of biryani, which over time became known locally as breyani.  Samosas have mutated into samoosas in Durban, and the "Durban Curry" served at the Britannia or Oyster Box are unlike anything found in India!

Before Apartheid, Indians and Blacks lived cheek by jowl. Many Indians could speak Zulu, and many Blacks understood dialects like Gujarati. This interaction resulted in their food becoming more alike. Curries incorporated African ingredients, textures and flavours, while African food became spicier. Sadly, the divide­ and-conquer policies of the Apartheid era succeeded in breaking down much of the harmony between races. It also destroyed people's interest in learning about other cultures. But it also led to unexpected culinary creativity born strictly out of necessity.

No longer able to serve Black workers who made up a large part of their customer base, restaurateurs from the Gujarati Bania (merchant caste) began innovating. They cleaved loaves of white bread into improvised bowls, filled them to the brim with whatever curries they had on hand, and served this portable (if messy) concoction surreptitiously out of takeaway hatches, with nary a parcel or piece of cutlery to betray their lucrative side business. Hence the name: Chow (food) of the Banias became "Bunny Chow" in the vernacular. A national obsession was born.

Patel's, a family business dating to the 1930s, claims to have invented the bunny chow; other reputable sources credit the erstwhile Kapitan's cafe. No matter who invented the sloppy classic, may he rest in peace, these days there are an abundance of takes to choose from. Patel's is still regarded as the purveyor of the best vegetarian offerings today. Gounden's in gritty Umbilo Road is famous for their keema mince and mutton curry and chops chutney, but even more popular are their spicy mutton bunnies, loaded with chunks of melt-in-the-mouth meat. The Britannia Hotel in Umgeni Road boasts great chicken curry bunnies, while Canecutters (named after a pejorative term for KZN Indians) in Glenwood makes possibly the best Durban curry bunnies.

Durban's Indian food is mostly hotter and spicier than its subcontinental counterpart. It is to traditional Indian food what breakdancing is to ballet. Where "Indian" Indian food is a carefully orchestrated symphony of individually-proportioned spices added to a pot at just the right time - a tablespoon of garam masala here, a touch of cumin there, a pinch of turmeric when the simmering medley looks just so - Durban curry powders are typically premixed affairs primed for easy home cooking, composed of whatever the spice merchants have dictated. Cumin, coriander, cardamom, fennel, turmeric; they're all mixed together in advance for your convenience, with plenty of chilli powder thrown in to give each blend its scarlet tint. Add a couple of heaping teaspoons to a pan and you've got yourself a Durban Curry!

During the Apartheid era, two generations of South African Indians largely lost their ties with India. Their cooking kept evolving while South Africa was largely isolated from the rest of the world, so of necessity they created their own Indian cuisine. Since 1994, Indo-South African relations have normalised, but not re-set. While many touristy restaurants now serve more or less authentic Indian regional cuisines, locals still largely stick to the hybrid version of traditional dishes that evolved here. In this respect they are like Americans of Italian descent, whose food has Italian roots but bears American fruit.

Durban Curry Bunny Chow. Selecting a signature dish for South African Indian cuisine was a bit of a no­ brainer...

 

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 1 ½ hours

Serves 4

 

For the Durban curry:

1kg Leg of lamb, deboned and cubed

3 Large potatoes, peeled and diced

3 Large onions, chopped

1 Medium tomato, skinned and diced 2 Tbsp. dried mango, finely chopped

A 5 cm-long piece of fresh ginger, finely chopped

½ Tbsp. crushed garlic

2 Cloves

2 Cinnamon sticks, each about 10 cm long 6 Curry leaves

5ml Whole fennel seeds

1  Tbsp. Hot curry powder                                                         '\

1 Tsp. salt

1  Tsp. Tamarind extract

250ml Water

75ml Sunflower oil

For the "bunny":

A fresh loaf of white bread, whole

½ Tbsp. chopped coriander leaves for garnishing

 

  • Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat,
  • Add the onion, cloves and cinnamon sticks.
  • Add the curry powder, stir and let the mixture cook for about 2 minutes.
  • Add the meat to the pot and stir until the meat is coated in the spice mixture.
  • Add the salt, garlic, ginger, mango, tamarind, curry leaves and fennel seeds. Stir thoroughly.
  • Cook on high heat for 5 minutes, stirring continually.
  • Add the potato, reduce the heat to medium and put the lid on the pot.
  • Cook, covered, for an hour.
  • While the curry simmers, cut the loaf of bread into quarters.
  • Scoop or cut out the centres of each quarter loaf, essentially creating a "bowl" of bread for the curry. Don't discard the loose pieces of bread; they are used to sop up some of the curry in the hollowed-out bread quarters.
  • Arrange the bread on four plates and set aside.
  • As some of the excess water and juices in the curry evaporate, add the additional cup of water, followed by the tomato.
  • Check whether the potato is cooked. Once it is, removed the lid and cook on high heat for 5 minutes to thicken the sauce. Stir continuously during this time.
  • Remove from the heat, and cover until it is time to serve the curry.
  • Fill the hole of each quarter loaf with the curry and sauce.
  • Garnish with the coriander leaves and serve with sambals and/or raita (yoghurt and grated cucumber).

Luso-African cuisine

Luso-African cuisine is big in South Africa. Firstly, many Mozambicans live and work here, and many South Africans vacation or work there. Secondly, during the colonial era "LM" was the most exotic holiday destination White South Africans would ever visit; they could bask in its sub-tropical sun, eat piri-piri prawns and chicken and quaff Vinho Verde. Those pleasant memories endure to this day. Last, but not least, the end of colonial rule saw hundreds of thousands of Portuguese refugees flee Mozambique, many of whom settled in South Africa.

Mozambique is justifiably famous for its cuisine, which combines African ingredients and flavours with spices from the East, hot chillies (originally from the Americas) and Portuguese traditions. It was first infused with Arab elements around 700 CE, when traders and slavers from Yemen established bases on the island of Moçambique and at Sofala (modern-day Beira). The Arabs introduced the local population to salt as a means of preserving food. They also introduced various spices and Arab pastries such as doughnuts. They also introduced maize, rice and potatoes, all of which became staple foods. These ingredients were soon intertwined with traditional African ingredients and recipes to create a unique new cuisine.

The Arabs held sway over Mozambique until the early 16th Century, when the Portuguese gained control of their two main settlements. They went on to establish hegemony over Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), Goa in India, Malacca in Indonesia and even Macao in China. The Portuguese in Mozambique gradually extended their control; erecting towns complete with forts and churches in places like lnhambane and Lourenço Marques (now Maputo.) As the Mozambican ports were revictualling and repair stations for Portuguese East Indiamen en route to and from Eastern spice emporiums, spices quickly became embedded in Mozambican cooking. Interestingly, the hot chillies which produce the heat to Indian and Mozambican dishes are not indigenous to either country; the Portuguese brought them to India from Brazil.

During their almost five centuries of rule, the Portuguese greatly impacted the food of Mozambique. Crops such as cassava, sugar cane and cashew nuts (Mozambique was once the largest producer of these nuts) were introduced by the Portuguese. The use of seasonings such as onions, bay leaves, garlic, fresh coriander, paprika, chilli peppers and wine were   introduced   by   the   Portuguese. Prego steak rolls, rissois (pastries filled with shrimp or cheese), the espetada (an outsized kebab}, pudim (custard pudding), and the ever-popular frango inteiro com piri-piri {whole chicken in piri-piri sauce) are all Portuguese dishes still commonly eaten in present-day Mozambique.

Unlike their fellow colonisers the British and the Germans, the Portuguese didn't practice explicit racial segregation. Although the majority of the povo (peasants) were dispossessed and oppressed, individuals could qualify for assimilation into the Portuguese mainstream through baptism in the Catholic Church and becoming literate. This, along with the growth of a sizeable mestiço (mixed-race) population, meant that Lusitanian culture and cuisine permeated Mozambican society more indelibly than those of other European powers. To this day, Mozambicans who can afford it prefer to eat the dishes that evolved from this culinary melting pot. Fundamental to this Luso-African amalgam is piri-piri, which means “spicy-spicy" and it is a standard accompaniment to just about all meals. It is traditionally made by pounding red chillies, garlic, salt and olive oil and lemon juice together.

The extent of the Portuguese influence becomes clear when one observes which dishes are popular, and what they contain. Fish, seafood and chicken – Portugal’s staples - are prominent. Portugal used to be a major seafaring nation, with a still-extensive fishing industry, and this is reflected in the amount of fish and seafood eaten. Mozambique is also blessed with a long coastline and rich fishing grounds, so it's no wonder that many of its most famous dishes also revolve around fresh seafood. The condiments used in these dishes speak volumes about the country's past as part of Portugal's colonial empire: olive oil, garlic and vinegar from Iberia, hot chillies from Brazil, coconut milk from East Africa and spices from the East. And to mop it all up, pãozinhos - delectable small Portuguese bread rolls.

Many consider peri-peri prawns and chicken as the two signature dishes of Mozambican cuisine, but there is much more to it than these two icons. Equally delectable are the curries that hail from Zambezia province, incorporating coconut and coconut milk. Zambezian chicken, grilled with palm oil and spiced mildly, is a particular delicacy. For casual eating, there's nothing than a Prego roll with the steak covered in a fiery red sauce - made with chillies, garlic and vinegar - encased in a fresh pao bun. Seafood other than prawns also forms a large part of the local diet, as it is abundant and cheap. Most popular among these are Lu/as (squid), po/po (octopus) and ameijoas (clams). An authentic local dish (with no discernible Portuguese influence) is Matata, a seafood stew made with clams in a peanut sauce.

Frango Grelhado. If Jakki and I were forced to choose only one poultry dish for the rest of our lives, it would probably be peri-peri "flattie".

 

Preparation time: 18 hours

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Serves 2

 

2 Baby chickens

2 Tbsp. fresh garlic, peeled and finely chopped

2 Tbsp. fresh Bird's Eye or Serrano chillies, chopped

2 Tbsp. freshly-squeezed lemon juice

2 Cups olive oil

3 Tsp. salt

1 Tsp. paprika

 

  • First prepare the oil. Best do this the day before; this allows the flavour to develop.
  • To make the peri-peri oil, heat the oil gently, but do not boil.
  • Add all the other ingredients except the prawns. Heat through, but don't boil.
  • Remove from the heat, cool, and save in a clean bottle until needed. Note: For a milder dish, add the cup of coconut milk and/or halve the number of chillies.
  • Split two baby chickens in half by cutting through the middle of the breast with a longish, very sharp knife. Flatten them by pushing down firmly on both halves of the breast.
  • Put the chickens in a marinade dish, and pour the peri-peri oil over them. Allow to rest for at least 12 hours. If the chickens are not completely submerged, scoop some of the marinade over them from time to time.
  • On D-Day, start a charcoal fire about 40 minutes before the chicken is removed from the marinade.
  • When the coals are ready, spread them evenly across the bottom of the braai. Allow to settle down.
  • Remove the chickens, and strain the marinade to remove all solids.
  • Set the braai grid about 20-30 cm above the coals.
  • Place the chickens on the grid skin side down, and baste with the marinade.
  • Turn and baste the skin side.
  • Keep turning and basting regularly, and remember to leave it on the bony side twice as long as on the skin to avoid burning the skin.
  • When cooked (after about 40 minutes) serve the chickens hot with roast potatoes and coleslaw.

 

“This year it is so dry in the Boland, they are selling waterblommetjies as dried flower arrangements.” – Roelof van der Westhuizen.

9. Mar, 2017

Last Saturday I was fortunate enough to catch my biggest yellowfin tuna yet. The fight was as tough as I had expected, and the “tax man” was kind enough not to help himself to my fish. But a yellowfin is about much more than the thrill of catching it; it is a gift that keeps on giving. From a culinary perspective, it is the true “chicken of the sea” in that it can be eaten in a myriad ways. After a few quick Kodak Moments I cleaned and filleted the magnificent beast, and then it was time for the real highlight of the day: sashimi from a fish that had been swimming in the sea five hours before!

I have eaten seared tuna and tuna sashimi many times, but nothing I’ve experienced had prepared me for the pleasure to come. The first clue appeared as I sliced our sashimi slivers – the vermillion flesh parted like warm butter! Butter was also the metaphor that came to mind as we tasted it for the first time, and – like the fat on jamón ibèrico – the “butter” dissipated without clinging to our palates. Those slivers of sashimi will remain vivid memories for the rest of my days. They also reinforced a long-held belief of mine: food doesn’t have to be cooked; some just happen to taste better when cooked. If it’s at its best raw, don’t try and force a marshmallow into a piggy bank – eat it raw!

Of course my philosophy is hardly new, particularly as far as fish and seafood are concerned. Most seafood-heavy cultures have figured out that you don't need to heat fish and shellfish before eating them. The flourishing sushi industry is but one manifestation of the joys of raw fish; literally dozens of examples of uncooked fish dishes can be found all over the world. Since some of them have similar features (and the nomenclature can be confusing) I’ve decided to devote this blog post to unpacking the wonders of some of the best-known raw fish dishes.

These dishes are gaining in popularity - even away from the coastal regions where raw fish is an old tradition - partly because the rapidly growing global middle class is ever-hungry for new and more exotic foods, but also because raw is an excellent way to appreciate high-quality seafood. These dishes came about as a way to utilise and celebrate the local catch, and have taken on different characteristics based on the different ingredients and cultures prevalent where they evolved Eating a raw fish dish is a way to really see and taste what it’s like to live along a certain coast. Here, in alphabetic order, is my list of iconic raw fish dishes. I hope this post will inspire you to try at least some of them!

Carpaccio

Carpaccio is a dish made with raw meat or fish (normally tuna or billfish); thinly sliced or pounded thin and served mainly as an appetiser. The dish, based on a North Italian speciality, carne cruda all'albese, was invented in 1950 by Giuseppe Cipriani, owner of Harry’s Bar in Venice. He originally prepared the dish for the countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo when he learned that the doctors had recommended that she eat raw meat. The dish was named carpaccio after Vittor Carpaccio, the Venetian painter known for the characteristic red and white tones of his work.

Traditional carpaccio is made with very thin slices of beef arranged on a plate with lemon juice, olive oil and shavings of white truffle or Parmesan cheese, and garnished with rocket. Today the term “carpaccio” is applied to any preparation made with thinly sliced raw meat or fish presented in this way. As far as fish is concerned, the species commonly used are yellowfin tuna, swordfish, marlin or sailfish. All of these have firm, reddish flesh with a meaty flavour, and can be used raw or lightly smoked.

Sadly, these magnificent game fish pose a health hazard to those who eat them. Because they are apex predators, they end up aggregating toxins like mercury which are ingested by organisms below them in the food chain. They also live longer than smaller fish, which allows enough time for the toxic build-up to reach levels which endanger the health of humans. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever touch carpaccio; only that we shouldn’t eat it regularly or in large amounts, and that we should preferably stick to species like yellowfin and longfin tuna which are smaller and have shorter life cycles.

Caviar

Caviar is probably the most exclusive raw fish delicacy; more expensive by weight – shadowing even Toto (Bluefin tuna) sashimi. Traditionally, the term “caviar” refers only to roe from wild sturgeon from the Black and Caspian Seas: Beluga, Ossetra and Sevruga caviar. Commercial caviar production historically involved stunning the fish and extracting the ovaries. Another method is extracting the caviar surgically (C section) which allows the females to continue producing roe but this method is very painful and stressful for the fish and is illegal in some countries. Depending on the country, caviar may also be used to describe the roe of other fish such as salmon, steelhead trout, lumpfish, whitefish, carp and other species of sturgeon.

Caviar is usually eaten as a garnish or a spread. Preparation follows a sequence that has not significantly changed over the last century. First, the ovaries are removed from a sedated female sturgeon and passed through a sieve to remove the membrane. Freed roes are rinsed to wash away impurities. Roes are now ready to become caviar by adding a precise amount of salt for taste and preservation. The fresh product is tasted and graded according to quality. Finally, the eggs are packed into lacquer-lined tins that will be further processed or sold directly to customers.

The rarest and most expensive “true” caviar is harvested from the rare beluga sturgeon of the Caspian Sea, which is bordered by Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. Beluga caviar is prized for its soft, extremely large (pea-size) eggs. It can range in colour from pale silver-grey to black.

Wild caviar production was suspended in Russia between 2008 and 2011 to allow wild stocks to replenish. Azerbaijan and Iran also clamped down on the fishing of sturgeon off their coasts. The ban on sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea led to the development of aquaculture as an economically viable means of commercial caviar production. Italy, where sturgeon used to be abundant in the Po basin, is currently the world's largest producer and exporter of farmed caviar, with about 20% of the caviar consumed worldwide produced there. Spain, Canada and the USA also have significant farmed caviar industries. Amazingly, the fastest-growing caviar aquaculture players are in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Israel together producing more caviar than Italy.

Apart from aquaculture of sturgeon caviar, many alternatives are on offer. The earliest example is “Kosher caviar”. Kashrut laws forbid the eating of any part of the sturgeon, which is deemed “unclean” because it has no scales. Innovative Jews responded by breeding a strain of carp (which is Kosher) which produces large, palatable eggs. In Scandinavia, a cheap “ersatz” version of caviar called smörgåskaviar ("sandwich caviar") is made from mashed and smoked cod roe and sold in tubes as a sandwich spread. Another caviar substitute is black or red lump fish (Cyclopterus lumpus) “caviar” sold all over the world in small glass jars. In North America, salmon eggs are widely preserved and eaten in the same way as real caviar. There are also kosher and vegan caviar substitutes made of seaweeds such as Laminaria hyoerborea. They closely resemble beluga caviar in appearance and are either used as a food prop for television and film, or enjoyed by vegetarians and people morally opposed to the killing of sturgeons.

Ceviche

If caviar is the most exclusive raw fish delicacy, ceviche is surely the most widely eaten by the masses. It is a staple in the coastal regions of Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the West Coast of the USA. In its original form, the dish is typically made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices, such as lemon or lime, and spiced with chilli peppers. Additional seasonings, such as chopped onions, salt, and cilantro (coriander leaf) have become accepted ingredients in recent years. Because it is eaten in so many different places, a large variety of fishes are used to make it. My favourites are all firm, white fish, as a soft or oily fish will become mushy when marinated for a while. In the Americas, ideal species include flounders, drumfish, grouper and sea bass. In South Africa, Kingklip is indeed king but yellowtail, rock cod and kob also make great ceviche.

There is archaeological evidence suggesting the consumption of a food similar to ceviche by the Moche civilisation in Northern Peru nearly 2,000 years ago. Recent research indicates that during the time of the Inca Empire, fish were marinated with the use of chicha (a fermented Andean drink). It may well be that the natives simply switched to using the juice of citrus fruits introduced by the Spanish colonists, but the key elements of the dish essentially remained the same.

What is clear is that ceviche was regularly eaten in Lima, Peru as early as the Sixteenth Century. The fact that Lima was the capital of the Spanish Vice-Royalty of Peru for nearly four centuries allowed for the introduction of popular dishes such as ceviche to other Spanish colonies in the region, and eventually to (Portuguese) Brazil. In time these dishes became part of local cuisine, and variants evolved as regional flavours and styles were incorporated.

Traditional ceviche was marinated in lime or lemon juice for about three hours. Modern-day ceviche, popularized in the 1970s, usually has a very short marinating period. With suitable fish, it can marinate in the time it takes to mix the ingredients, serve, and carry the ceviche to the table. Most Latin American countries have given ceviche its own touch of individuality by adding their own particular garnishes. The Chilean version is minimalist, with only salt, onion and cilantro added. Peruvian ceviche is more elaborate, with sliced onions, chilli and bell peppers, yuyo seaweed, salt and pepper, and is served at room temperature, with chunks of corn-on-the-cob, and slices of cooked sweet potato. Ecuadorian ceviche is made with shrimp and flavoured with tomato sauce for a tangy taste.

In Mexico and some parts of Central America, ceviche is served either in cocktail cups or as a tostada topping and taco filling. Apart from the traditional white fish, prawns, octopus, squid, tuna and mackerel are also popular bases for Mexican ceviche. The marinade ingredients include salt, lime, onion, chillies, bell peppers, cilantro and avocado. Sliced olives and chopped tomatoes are often added prior to serving.

Crudo

The Japanese are by no means the only culture long addicted to raw fish. The Italians share their passion for expertly prepared fresh fish. Pesce Crudo (literally “Raw Fish”) is ubiquitous in fishing towns - both large and small - along the coasts of Italy, Sicily and Sardinia. Italians living near the coastline have been eating raw fish for a long time. Its origins hark back to when fisherman with their returning catch helped themselves to some raw fish dressed with a little olive oil, lemon and salt for lunch. Each village may have its own signature fish or flavouring preferences; however the most traditional method of making crudo in Italy is still dressing the thinly sliced fish with a little olive oil, salt and lemon. My fondest memory of crudo is eating fresh white anchovy crudo in Palermo a week before 9/11.

Crudo and sashimi both rely on ultra-fresh seafood, but that’s where the similarities end. If you have ever been in a Japanese restaurant, you will have seen the slices of sashimi. It is simply raw fish. There are no added oils, seasonings or anything else. Crudo is not just a slice of raw fish though. It is dressed specifically, with the aim of pleasing an Italian palate. Crudo is more ingredient-driven as it uses different additives in order to not only enhance the flavour of the fish, but to give it a different consistence and appearance. This is why it is possible to order the same kind of raw fish from different Italian restaurants and enjoy something truly different from one restaurant to another, based on the seasoning and oils each uses. Fundis claim, for example, that the origin and vintage of the olive oil used can dramatically alter the dish’s flavour profile.

Nowadays crudo is all the rage in good Italian restaurants. Obviously finding ultra-fresh fish is crucial. But so is combining the right pairings with the fish – a good balance of extra virgin olive oil and a little acid taste combined with some interesting texture to complement the silkiness of the raw fish. The slight acidity of extra virgin olive oil isn’t enough to cure the fish like the salt-and-sugar mixture used to make gravlax, but it does create a subtle, aromatic coating meant to complement the fish’s natural flavour, rather than actually curing the fish. 

Italian chefs believe that using fish that are in season is as important as the preparation of the dish. Crudo is a balancing act between excellence and excess: it requires just enough texture, oil, heat, salt, citrus - whatever the flavourings chosen - to enhance the dish without masking or drowning the fish’s own pristine flavour and taste. As with sashimi, physics and chemistry play an important role when handling the fish. The proteins in fish are very fragile and can easily get damaged if too much pressure is applied while slicing, so it is important the fish be super-cold and handled with a light touch when it is being cut. 

While any fish (or other seafood, like scallops or shrimps) can be used to make crudo, the yellowfin tuna (also known as albacore) is a firm favourite, along with swordfish, sea bass, flounder and monkfish. Anchovies, sardines and mackerel are more abundant and therefore cheaper, and can be turned into delicacies with proper skill and care.

Fugu

Fugu is the Japanese word for “pufferfish” – that unsightly, bloated little pest of a fish we all caught in abundance at some or other time while going after more desirable quarries. Not only are the ugly as sin; “blaasoppies” contain a lethal poison, tetrodotoxin, in their skins and intestines. To make the dish, therefore, the fish must be carefully cleaned and sliced to remove toxic parts and to avoid contaminating the flesh. Tetrodotoxin is 1200 times stronger than cyanide, and there is no known antidote. The victim remains conscious but cannot speak or move. Breathing stops and asphyxiation ensues. The only effective treatment is to support the victim’s respiratory and circulatory systems until the poison is metabolised and excreted.

One aspect of the fugu sub-culture not well known to Westerners is that diners knowingly consume tetrodotoxin because of the narcotic effect it has when consumed in sub-lethal quantities. The role of the Fugu chef is not to eliminate the toxin altogether, but to reduce it, to the extent that the diner experiences effects of mild intoxication, including waves of euphoria and tingling sensations.

Notwithstanding the danger associated with eating it, fugu has long been one of the most celebrated and notorious dishes in Japanese cuisine. The inhabitants of Japan have eaten it for centuries. Fugu bones have been found in shell middens that date back more than 2,300 years. Over the years, the consumption of fugu was periodically banned several times, but in regions where the government's influence was weak and/or fugu was easy to obtain, the practice continued unabated. Various cooking methods were developed to safely eat the lethal little fish. The last “prohibition era” occurred during the Meiji Restoration of the late 1800s. Fugu is the only food the Emperor of Japan is forbidden to eat, for obvious reasons.

The restaurant preparation of fugu is strictly controlled by law in Japan and several other countries, and only chefs who have qualified after three or more years of rigorous training are allowed to prepare the fish. Newspapers often report accidental deaths due to inept domestic preparation. In an attempt to prevent this from happening, the Japanese government is incentivising grocery stores to offer professionally prepared fugu, and has made it illegal for whole fish to be sold to the general public.

Restaurants normally serve fish from a large tank kept on the premises; usually prominently displayed. Only when an order is placed is the fish killed and prepared by a licenced chef. Since 2012, restaurants in Japan have been permitted to sell fugu which has been prepared and packaged by a licensed practitioner elsewhere. Such restaurants are not held in high esteem, however. Eating fugu is an expensive indulgence – a starter portion typically costs around US$40, and a traditional eight-course meal can cost more than US$200. The expense encourages chefs to slice the fish very carefully to obtain the largest possible amount of meat. The special knife, called a fugu hiki, is usually stored separately from other knives.

A rakugo (ancient humorous Japanese anecdote) tells of three men who prepared a fugu stew but were unsure whether it was safe to eat. To test the stew, they gave some to a beggar. When it did not seem to do him any harm, they ate the stew. Later, they met the beggar again and were delighted to see that he was still in good health. After that encounter, the beggar, who had hidden the stew instead of eating it, knew that it was safe and he could eat it. The three men had been fooled by the wise beggar.

Gravlax

Gravlax is an iconic Scandinavian dish consisting of raw salmon, cured in salt, sugar and dill. Gravlax is usually served as an appetiser, sliced thinly and accompanied by a dill and mustard sauce, either on bread, or with boiled potatoes. The “grav” part of its name comes from the Scandinavian word for "to dig" (it shares the same root with the English "grave") and “lax”, which means "salmon." The name therefore literally means "buried salmon," which is how gravlax was originally made. During medieval times, fishermen salted their salmon and lightly fermented it by burying it in the sand above the high-water mark.

Today fermentation is no longer used in the production process. Instead the salmon is "buried" in a dry marinade of salt, sugar, and dill, and cured for a few days. As the salmon cures, the moisture turns the dry cure into a highly concentrated brine via the action of osmosis. This same method of curing can be employed for any fatty fish, but salmon (“lax”) is the most commonly used. Gravlax need not be an expensive delicacy if you make it yourself. For the price of a fresh fillet of salmon and a very short two- or three-day wait, you can serve a beautiful spread of hand-sliced gravlax as an hors d'oeuvre or light appetizer. Plus, because you're making it yourself, you can customise its flavour with the aromatics of your choice.

The whole process is ridiculously easy, and yet gravlax continues to be one of those dishes that impress people. This is no joke: the hardest thing about making your own gravlax is slicing it. Because gravlax is an inherently simple preparation, the biggest question is simply what ratio of salt to sugar to use in the dry brine. On a technical level, what both the salt and sugar do is draw moisture out of the fish. This decreases the moisture level of the fish, which in turn makes it less hospitable to microbial life. The salt, meanwhile, also helps ward off bacteria that would otherwise hasten spoilage. This extends the edible life of the salmon, but only for a short amount of time—gravlax is not cured in the long-term sense of the word. As gravlax is lightly cured, the fish's shelf life is extended only a little, not a lot. Exactly how long it lasts will depend on just how pristine the fish was when it was bought, as well as how it has been stored and handled. On average, it starts smelling a little fishy after about five days or so, not including the curing time itself.

Ultimately, the ratio of salt to sugar is a question of personal taste.  A sugar-heavy cure produces a sweet-tasting gravlax with very little saltiness, while a salt-heavy cure produces gravlax with a pleasant level of saltiness that is rounded out by a very subtle sweetness. The saltier cure also helps firm the salmon more, sweeter ones retain more of the salmon's sashimi-like raw-fish texture. Beyond the salt and sugar, you have other options for flavouring your gravlax. Dill is essential for the classic gravlax flavour, and white pepper is very common. For those who don't like the pungent taste of white pepper, black pepper works well too. If you want to add even more dimension, spices like caraway seed, tarragon and fennel seed are all good options.

Some people add citrus to the mix. I'd strongly advise against using whole citrus or the juice, which some recipes call for, since the acid will cook the fish like a ceviche, toughening the fish's exterior in an unpleasant way. If you want citrus flavour, add zest instead. It's also common to see alcohol, like aquavit and brandy, in gravlax recipes. Some liquors like brandy might have a bigger flavor impact, but I'd say if you want to taste caraway—the spice used to flavour aquavit—you're better off just using the spice itself.

Maatjes Herring

Freely translated, maatjes haring means “soused herring”. Soused herring (Clupea harengus) is  soaked in a mild preserving liquid. It can be raw herring in a mild vinegar pickle or Dutch brined herring. Apart from vinegar, the marinade might contain cider, wine, sugar, herbs (usually bay leaves), spices (usually mace) and/or chopped onion. It is traditionally served cold.

To those of us without ties to the Netherlands, juvenile herrings are indelibly associated with “rollmops” – pickled filets of herring rolled up and skewered. This is however but one of many ways of serving herring – actually a variant on “Bismarck Herring” - and maatjes are seldom preserved; most are eaten fresh! The herrings caught by the Dutch trawler fleet are categorised as maatjes (“maagdelijk” or virginal), volle haring (ready to spawn) or ijle haring (skinny, spawned-out fish). For the purposes of this post, I will confine myself to the former.

Herrings are of huge importance to countries along the North Sea, and are the raw material for rollmops, kippers, bloaters and Arbroath Smokies. The first catches are made in June, and Dutch gourmets insist that these precious little fish are best simply gutted and eaten raw. For the less adventurous, the options are to preserve them through hot or cold smoking or – preferably – curing them in brine. Herring are not just tasty and versatile, but also packed with vitamins, minerals and Omega 3 unsaturated fatty acids. They are caught using sustainable techniques, and stocks are relatively stable.   

To make Dutch-style soused herring young, immature herrings are immersed in brine for a couple of days. The liver and pancreas are left in the fish during the salt-curing process because they release enzymes essential for the flavour to develop fully. The pancreatic enzymes make this version of salt herring especially mild and soft. The fish are caught between the end of May and the beginning of July in the North Sea off Denmark or Norway - before the breeding season starts. This is because herrings at this time are unusually rich in oils (over 15%) and their roe and milt have not started to develop. The brine used for Dutch soused herring has a much lower salt content and is much milder in taste than the German equivalent, loggermatjes. Whereas salt herrings have a salt content of 20% and must be soaked in water before consumption, soused herrings do not need soaking.

In the Netherlands soused herring is most often served as a snack - most often on its own, or with cut onions. Whole herring is often eaten by lifting the herring by its tail and eat it upwards holding it over one’s mouth. Soused herring dishes in Northern Germany are traditionally served with potatoes boiled in their skins, or with sliced raw onions in a bread roll. In some northern German länder like Holstein, it is served on dark bread with a berry and cream sauce. In Sweden matjessill is traditionally served with boiled potatoes, sour cream, chopped chives and crisp bread. This dish is traditionally served on Midsummer’s's Eve, and is usually more strongly spiced than the Dutch, Danish or German varieties.

Poke

The perfect example of trans-Pacific fusion food is Poke. This Hawaiian hybrid ceviche/sashimi dish (pronounced poh-kay) is nowadays served in the form of a bowl of cubed raw fish, sometimes served over rice, in a sauce. It is usually dressed with soy sauce, seaweed, and sesame oil, but it’s not uncommon to see Japanese mayonnaise, wasabi, hot sauce, onions, avocado, or basically anything else in poke.

It’s a fairly young dish. Raw fish has admittedly been eaten by Hawaiians for centuries, but the dish recognisable as poke dates back perhaps to the late 19th century. It has no singular cultural origin, so poke is a particularly fluid dish; on local foundations an edifice has been built inspired by both Asia and the America. On the US mainland, the word “poke” has become a catch-all term used to refer to any dish of cubed raw fish in a bowl.

Poke is the Hawaiian verb for "to slice or cut". Traditional forms are made with aku (an oily tuna) and he'e (octopus). Increasingly popular ahi poke is usually made with yellowfin tuna. Adaptations may feature raw salmon or various shellfish as a main ingredient, served raw with the common "poke" seasonings. Poke began with fishermen seasoning the offcuts from their catch to serve as a snack. 

The present form of poke became popular during the 1970s. It used skinned, filleted raw fish served with sea salt, seaweed and roasted, ground kukui nut. This form of poke is still common in the Hawaiian islands. Traditional poke seasonings have been heavily influenced by Japanese and other Asian cuisines. These include soya sauce, scallions (green onions) and sesame oil. Others include furikake (a mixture of dried fish, sesame seeds, and dried seaweed), chopped dried or fresh chillies, limu (seaweed), sea salt, fish eggs, wasabi, and Maui onions.

Sashimi

Sashimi is an ancient Japanese preparation, and one of the seemingly simplest. The dish consists of carefully sliced raw fish that is usually not marinated, and served with no sauce and minimal garnishes. Unlike other raw fish dishes, sashimi is not preserved with acid or smoke, but given a slight extension in shelf-life due to the method with which the fish is killed, a spike through the brain known as ike jime. Common fish for sashimi include salmon, tuna, squid, mackerel, and sea urchin. The Korean dish hoe, when it includes seafood, is largely similar and differs only in that it is usually served with a soya sauce.

The word sashimi means "pierced body". This word may refer to the culinary practice of sticking the fish's tail and fin to the slices in identifying the fish being eaten. Another possibility for the name could come from the traditional method of harvesting. "Sashimi-grade" fish is caught by individual hand line. As soon as the fish is landed, its brain is pierced with a sharp spike, and it is placed in slurried ice. The instantaneous death means that the fish's flesh contains a minimal amount of lactic acid. This means that the fish will keep fresh on ice for about ten days, without turning white or otherwise degrading.

Many non-Japanese use the terms sashimi and sushi interchangeably, but the two dishes are distinct and separate. Sushi refers to any dish made with vinegared rice. While raw fish is one traditional sushi ingredient, many sushi dishes contain seafood that has been cooked, and others have no seafood at all. Sashimi, on the other hand, is always raw. Japanese chefs consider sashimi the finest dish in Japanese formal dining and recommend that it be eaten before other strong flavours affect the palate.

The sliced seafood that represents the main ingredient is typically draped over a garnish. The typical garnish is daikon (Asian white radish), shredded into long thin strands, or single leaves of the perilla herb. Sashimi is popularly served with a dipping sauce and condiments such as wasabi paste and grated fresh ginger. Wasabi paste is sometimes mixed directly into soy sauce as a dipping sauce, which is generally not done when eating sushi. A reputed motivation for serving wasabi with sashimi, besides its flavour, is killing harmful bacteria and parasites that could be present in raw seafood.

In order to highlight the fish's appearance, the chef cuts it into different thicknesses. The hira-zukuri cut, which translates into "rectangular slice", is the standard cut for most sashimi. Typically this style of cut is the size of a domino and 10 mm thick. Tuna, salmon, and kingfish are most commonly cut in this style. The uzu-zukuri cut, which translates to "thin slice", is an extremely thin, diagonally cut slice that is mostly used to cut firm fish, such as bream, sea bass and flounder. The kaku-zukuri cut, which translates to "square slice", is the style in which sashimi is cut into small, thick cubes that are 20 mm on each side. The ito-zukuri cut, which translates into "thread slice," is the style in which the fish is cut into thin sheets, less than 2 mm thick. The fish typically cut with the ito-zukuri style include garfish and squid.

The immense popularity of bluefin tuna for sashimi has contributed to the overfishing that has brought this magnificent fish to the verge of extinction. Farming bluefin does not help the situation, because the captive fish are not raised from spawn, but rather from small wild fish that are netted and transported to the farms, mostly in the Mediterranean. Producing a kilogram of tuna also requires at least 10 kg of bait fish like anchovy, sardine or mackerel. Fortunately, Japanese scientists are reportedly close to finding a way to save wild bluefin tuna from extinction by successfully breeding and raising the fish in captivity.

Sushi

Simply put, sushi is a traditional Japanese dish consisting of cooked, vinegared rice  combined with various ingredients, mainly fish, other seafood, vegetables (including sea weed) and meat. Styles of sushi and its presentation vary widely, but the central ingredient in all cases is the rice. Sushi is often served with pickled ginger, wasabi and soya sauce. Daikon radish is popular as a garnish. It is often confused with sashimi, which consists of thinly sliced raw meat or fish and where a serving of rice is optional.

Sushi evolved from a dish known as nare-zushi - salted fish, stored in fermented rice for possibly months at a time. The lacto-fermentation of the rice prevented the fish from spoiling, and the rice would be discarded before the fish was eaten. The term “sushi” comes from an antiquated grammatical form, no longer used in other contexts, and literally means "sour-tasting". Vinegar was introduced to the preparation of nare-zushi in the late Middle Ages in order to enhance both taste and longevity. The primitive sushi would be furthered developed in Osaka, where over several centuries it evolved into oshi-zushi. In this preparation, the seafood and rice were pressed into shape with wooden (typically bamboo) moulds.

Contemporary sushi was created by chef Hanaya Yohei (1799–1858) in the mid-1800s. Hanaya's version was a precursor to fast food; by avoiding all fermentation, the dish could be prepared very quickly, and each roll was shaped for conveniently eating with one's hands. Portion sizes shrank to roughly a third of the previous norm to further accommodate this principle. The dish was originally termed edomae-zushi as it used freshly caught fish from the Edo Bay (Bay of Tokyo). The term edomae-nigirizushi is still used today as a by-word for quality sushi, regardless of its ingredients' origins.

Modern-day sushi can take on a wide variety of forms. Chirashizushi or "scattered sushi" is served by scooping rice into a bowl, and topping it with a variety of raw fish and vegetable garnishes. Edomae chirashizushi (Edo-style scattered sushi) is served with uncooked ingredients in an artful arrangement. Gomokuzushi (Kansai-style sushi) consists of cooked or uncooked ingredients mixed with the rice. Sake-zushi (Kyushu-style sushi) uses rice wine over vinegar in preparing the rice, and is topped with shrimp, sea bream, octopus, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots and shredded omelette.

Inarizushi is a pouch of fried tofu, typically filled with sushi rice alone. Regional variations include pouches made of a thin omelette instead of tofu. Cone sushi is a variant of inarizushi which originated in Hawaii and it includes green beans, carrots and cucumber along with the rice, wrapped in a triangular piece of aburage (similar to tofu). It is often sold in Japanese delis. Makizushi ("rolled sushi"), norimaki ("Nori roll") and makimono ("variety of rolls") are cylindrical pieces, formed with the help of a bamboo mat known as a makisu. Rolled sushi is generally wrapped in nori (seaweed) and cut into six or eight pieces, which constitutes a single roll order.

Temarizushi or "ball sushi" is made by pressing rice and fish into a ball-shaped form by hand using a plastic wrap. Oshizushi ("pressed sushi") is a pressed sushi from the Kansai prefecture; it is a favourite and specialty of Osaka. A block-shaped piece is formed using a wooden mould, called an oshibako. The chef lines the bottom of the oshibako with the toppings, covers them with sushi rice, and then presses the lid of the mould down to create a compact, rectilinear block. The block is removed from the mould and cut into bite-sized pieces.

The increasing popularity of sushi around the world has resulted in variations typically found in the West, but rarely in Japan. (A notable exception to this is the use of salmon, which was introduced by Bjorn Eirik Olsen, a Norwegian businessman tasked with helping the Norwegian salmon industry sell more fish in the early 1980s). Such creations to suit the Western palate were initially fuelled by the invention of the California Roll (a nori roll  with crab, cucumber, and avocado). The Norway Roll is a variant of uramakizushi filled with omelette, imitation crab and cucumber, rolled with nori and topped with slices of Norwegian salmon, garnished with lemon and mayonnaise. Other Western inventions include the rainbow roll (an inside-out topped with thinly sliced tuna or amberjack, salmon and avocado) and the caterpillar roll (an inside-out topped with thinly sliced avocado). Also commonly found is the "rock and roll" (an inside-out roll with barbecued freshwater eel and avocado with toasted sesame seeds on the outside).

For culinary, sanitary, and aesthetic reasons, the minimum quality and freshness of fish to be eaten raw must be superior to that of fish which is to be cooked. Sushi chefs are trained to recognize important attributes, including smell, colour, firmness, and freedom from parasites that may go undetected in commercial inspection. Commonly used fish are tuna, amberjack, yellowtail, snapper, mackerel and salmon. The most valued sushi ingredient is toro, the fatty belly cut of the fish. Other seafoods such as squid, octopus, prawns, clams, conger eel, fish roe, crab and sea urchins and various kinds of shellfish like abalone, periwinkle and scallops, are also popular sushi ingredients. Oysters, however, are less common, as the taste is not thought to go well with the rice. Kani kama, or imitation crab stick, is commonly substituted for real crab, most notably in California rolls.

Sushi is usually eaten with condiments. Soya sauce is used to dip sushi morsels in, and is usually flavoured with wasabi, a hot paste made from the grated root of the Wasabia japonica plant Japanese-style mayonnaise is also a common condiment in Japan on salmon, eel other fatty sushi cuts. True wasabi has anti-bacterial properties, and may reduce the risk of food poisoning. Gari (sweet, pickled ginger) is eaten in between sushi courses to both cleanse the palate and aid in digestion. In Japan, green tea is invariably served with sushi. Better sushi restaurants often use a distinctive premium tea known as mecha. Sushi may be garnished with gobo (a carrot-like root), grated daikon radish, thinly sliced vegetables, carrots/radishes/cucumbers that have been shaped to look like flowers, real flowers, or seaweed.

Tekkadon

Tekkadon resembles sushi in that it is a Japanese dish combining rice with raw fish. It is basically sashimi tuna served on a bed of sushi rice, with seaweed, wasabi and ginger. Many Japanese restaurants also serve chirashi, which is the same dish but with assorted other seafood in place of the tuna. A spicy version of both is made with a mixture of oriental spices and/or spiced orange sauce, usually incorporating spring onions.

The bright red colour of raw tuna is said to be the inspiration for the name; tekka don means “red-hot iron”. It is an extremely easy dish to make if you have good sashimi-grade tuna (raw tuna that is sold to be eaten raw). Even though the dish is not complicated to make, tekkadon tastes really good and is much more exclusive than typical rice bowl dishes containing cooked ingredients. Raw tuna can be a little pricey to have for everyday lunch, but it’s great for more special occasions. 

The marinade should be a simple mixture of three parts dark soy sauce; one part mirin (sweet rice wine). A word of caution: it’s important not to leave the tuna slices in the marinade for longer than 15 - 20 minutes, otherwise it becomes too salty. Because it is marinated, you can make this dish with most tuna varieties (including the larger bonito species) and it will still taste good. On a hot summer’s day, I like to chill the tuna well and combine it with the rice at the very last minute.

And finally, a fish doomed to extinction by a marketing campaign

As can be seen above, tuna is an integral, if not essential, part of sashimi, sushi and tekkadon. Bluefin tuna (known in Japan as hon-maguro or “true tuna”) is widely considered to be the pinnacle of fine sushi, especially bluefin toro - the fatty belly cuts of the fish.  Judging by the lengths the Japanese are prepared to go to (not to mention the expense) one can be forgiven for assuming that eating tuna is another ages-old Japanese tradition.

In a country where most culinary traditions are ancient, this custom is a paradox, because just a few decades ago the Japanese considered toro such a disgusting part of the tuna that the only people who would eat it were impoverished manual labourers. And prior to about the 1920s, no self-respecting Japanese person would eat any kind of tuna at all if they could possibly avoid it. Tuna was so despised in Japan that all tuna species qualified for an official term of disparagement: gezakana, or “inferior fish.”

There were two main reasons for this disdain. An old Japanese name for tuna was shibi - the name is still used in some parts of Japan – and this can be interpreted as meaning “the day of death.” To the highly superstitious people of the Edo Period (1603-1868) - especially the samurai class - such pun-like coincidences were taken very seriously. So tuna acquired a reputation for being an unlucky fish. The other reason was that in the days before refrigeration, fish were kept alive for as long as possible to ensure their freshness, especially if they were prepared without heat. It was impossible to keep large tuna alive, so the flesh deteriorated rapidly. The fatty parts of the fish, which went bad before the lean parts, were so disliked that they were deemed fit only for cat food. Those same fatty parts, called toro, are now the most in-demand and pricey parts of any fish; a slice of otoro (the fatty belly meat) is one of the priciest morsels around.

When soy sauce became widely established as a cooking ingredient in old Tokyo during the mid- to late 18th century, people discovered that tuna kept longer and tasted better if it was marinated in a mixture of salty soy sauce and sweet mirin or sugar (a method called zuke) as both salt and sugar act as preservatives. Gradually tuna became more popular, but only the lean parts. With the advent of refrigeration, it became possible to freeze tuna as soon as it was caught to keep it fresh.

Because of the low-class reputation of tuna, until the 1890s most of it was consumed by the fishermen who caught it, and their families. Yet even they shunned the fatty parts. Toro has only been eaten in large quantities since the 1920s, when it was sold as cheap “emergency food” from street stalls after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Despite the historical bias against tuna on the part of the upper classes, it was widely eaten by poorer coastal communities. Many old regional recipes exist for lean tuna; the most popular being tekkadon.

Until the aftermath of World War II, tuna was considered foul-tasting compared to the prized white flounder, sea bass and mackerel, and it was mainly distributed among the poor and homeless. This history is strikingly similar to that of a prized delicacy in the USA: the lobster. This crustacean was once served to prison inmates, before it became popular in upscale, cosmopolitan markets.
Once Japanese society began absorbing a considerable influx of American culture during the 1950s and 1960s, the Japanese began demanding fattier, American style proteins, but tuna still remained largely unwanted and sold for pennies per pound.

Then a marketing campaign changed a culture and doomed a species. As Japan’s export economy entered a golden age, Japanese airline cargo executives began promoting Atlantic bluefin for sushi so they’d have something to fill their planes with on their return trip from America to Tokyo. They created the perception that offering a respected person toro sushi was the height of hospitality. Almost incredibly, the historically inert Japanese adopted the fad and the rest, as they say, is history. The feeding frenzy that ensued continues unabated, so much so that there are credible reports showing that the Mitsubishi Corporation is stockpiling frozen bluefin in order to control the world’s inventory at inflated prices once the species cannot be found any longer.

Despite its popularity and the high prices at the dinner table, old-school sushi aficionados in Japan still think of the bluefin as a fatty, metallic tasting fish much inferior in quality to more traditional fish used for sashimi and sushi. Ironically, it seems, popularity in this market follows advertising trends, rather than tradition or the actual refined tastes of the experts. The truth can be stranger than fiction…