Are you old enough to remember when the idea of eating raw fish was startling to most Americans?
Because of the influence of Japanese cuisine, and its mid-ocean location, Hawaii was the first of the United States to have fully embraced raw fish in a classic local dish: poke (pronounced poh-KAY or poh-KEE or poh-KEH). This is a delicious mélange of chunks of raw fish, usually tuna, stirred with seasonings such as soy sauce, sesame oil, hot peppers, onions, seaweed, nuts, the possibilities being endless.
There were days, not that long ago, when even the most passionate lovers of raw clams and oysters, or of smoked fish or gravlax, shuddered at the idea of raw tuna, or even medium rare salmon. The emergence of Japanese cuisine here shattered that mindset, and in the 1980s, New York’s Le Bernardin brought the concept to a whole new level, becoming renowned for its elegant, intensely flavored raw fish dishes. Today, their menu still has whole sections headed “almost raw” and “barely touched.”
One very popular dish often found on menus is “crudo”, literally, “raw”, but referring to raw fish. This can take on many guises, one or more types of impeccably fresh fish in a seasoning or with a dipping sauce. It’s elegant and, other than finding a totally reliable source for the fish, easy.
Other examples are tuna carpaccio and tuna tartare, the same sourcing issues, but simple as can be, just raw tuna, your best olive oil, and a sprinkling of sea salt, maybe a dash of parmesan or shaving of white truffle. Perfection.
Incidentally, the name tartare, as in Steak Tartare, has nothing to do with the myth regarding Tartars (or Tatars) riding around the Steppes of Central Asia with their steak under the saddle to tenderize it. Raw, chopped steak was traditionally served with tartar sauce (and that was named by the French for the Tartars), hence an enterprising early 20th century restaurateur came up with the name.
Then there’s ceviche. Whether it’s raw or cooked depends on how you define “cooked”. Applying heat to proteins will denature them, the same effect as soaking in an acidic liquid such as lemon or lime juice. Some traditional ceviche, particularly shellfish like shrimp or lobster, is cooked and then marinated. One of my happiest ceviche memories was in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, where the local version included vibrant jalapeno peppers.
A favorite travel memory is of Tsukiji, the giant wholesale market area in Tokyo, best known for its fish division, and more specifically, for crack of dawn auctions of tuna sourced from around the world, and every other kind of seafood imaginable. Because the market has become so wildly popular that tourists started impeding business, not to mention safety concerns (FAST forklifts racing by), access is now strictly limited. But, it’s worth a visit, and a sushi breakfast at one of the many restaurants surrounding the market is a treat not to be missed.
The only time I’ve felt unsafe approaching raw fish was in the mountains of Japan, at a tiny, family owned ryokan (inn) where uncooked fish from the stream was served. Because the parasites that affect land animals can affect humans, eating uncooked fresh water fish can be dangerous. But the host would have lost face (and we as well, having said we eat everything) had we not consumed it. What to do? Dip it in the bubbling soup pot when they weren’t looking. There’s a solution for everything!