Raw fish: know your ceviche from your sashimi...
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 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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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…