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NIPPONIA No.36 March 15, 2006

Special Feature*
Koyama Hirohisa is the head of Ecole Culinaire Heisei, teaches there, and promotes the appreciation of Japanese cuisine overseas.
Eat It Raw:
How to Prepare
Sushi and Sashimi
Fish is cooked and prepared in many ways in Japan, but the ultimate eating experience is surely raw sushi and sashimi. If you are going to eat raw seafood, you will want to make sure it is safe to eat, and tasty too. That means choosing the right seafood and preparing it the right way. Nipponia asked Koyama Hirohisa, one of Japan's top chefs, to explain.
Preparation tips given to Nipponia by Koyama Hirohisa,
owner of Aoyagi, a traditional Japanese restaurant
Photos by Kono Toshihiko

Some of the seafood displayed on this plate of sushi and sashimi: prawn, sea urchin, herring roe, tuna, sea bream, horse mackerel, squid. Chefs need a good eye for freshness and ingredients, and a skilled hand for cutting. That is the key to delicious and attractive servings.

Japan is an archipelago in East Asia, surrounded by water where many varieties of fish thrive. It would be hard to talk about Japanese cuisine without mentioning fish, including, of course, the art of preparing it raw for the table. Fish has long been an important part of Japan's culinary culture, and this culture offers a treasure house of seafood knowledge to learn from.

Raw fish—not an old tradition
It was only about 150 years ago in Japan that it became common to eat fish that could be considered truly raw. Before then, fish was sometimes eaten uncooked, but it was salted and/or treated with vinegar to prevent deterioration through bacterial action. After soy sauce became available around the middle of the 16th century, some people would cut up raw fish, dip pieces in the sauce and eat it, but this practice spread to the common folk only around the middle of the 19th century. And actually, eating raw fish only became widespread after World War II, thanks to advances in electrical refrigeration, trucking, and urban sanitation, including garbage removal.
The Japanese had always eaten seafood, however, and had developed a wide repertoire of culinary techniques, and this knowledge was adapted to preparing raw fish. One technique, ikejime, is an unusual way to kill the fish and ensure the ultimate in freshness and taste. A few years ago I showed this method to the famous French chef, Alain Ducasse, whom I am lucky enough to count among my friends. I used a sea bass caught off the Bretagne coast.
Knives: Tools for the expert
Japanese cuisine calls for a wide variety of knives, each one designed for a specific job and a certain type of ingredient. Here are just a few examples. From top right, down: hamo-giri bocho (blade 36 cm long; for cutting fish with many small bones); yanagi-ba bocho (for sashimi—the long blade is drawn toward you when cutting, so as not to crush the fish fibers); maguro-hiki bocho (for cutting fish that has little fiber—cut straight down); fugu-hiki bocho (for cutting very thin slices); deba bocho (thick heavy blade for filleting large fish); and usuba bocho (mainly for chopping vegetables up fine).
In ikejime, as soon as the fish is taken out of the sea, a special hooked tool is used to crush its hindbrain. The heart keeps beating and pumping blood. The idea is to get the fish to pump out its own blood by cutting arteries in the gills and tail. You have to remove the blood because otherwise the fish will retain an unpleasant fishy smell. And you have to restrain the fish because otherwise it will flap about, making the flesh less tasty. A fish restrained the ikejime way is only half dead—it is so fresh that the muscles still move a little. That is the time to eat it. Monsieur Ducasse was amazed, and seemed very pleased with the taste.

Sashimi and sushi
Sashimi and sushi are the best known ways to serve raw fish. The word “sashimi” used to mean any sliced up food, including vegetables and tofu. The food is cut into bite-size pieces, either with the grain or against it, always with the aim of getting the best taste. Sashimi is cuisine made with knives.
We have a saying, kasshu hoju (cutting is the most important, cooking comes second). We could interpret this to mean that sashimi is superior to cooked food. Because cutting is so important, we have a wide variety of knives to choose from. They are our most important tools, and I sharpen mine until I could shave with them. One of my daily routines is sharpening knives.
Sushi is now popular worldwide. Hand-molded sushi consists of two parts—an easy-to-handle clump of rice seasoned with vinegar, and a topping of raw or cooked seafood. Years ago, sushi developed as a food that was treated to keep it fresh, but today the hand-molded version is rice with some topping. The vinegar is a preservative and helps prevent the ingredients from deteriorating.

The photo shows some types of seafood ideal to be eaten raw: sea bream, prawns, horse mackerel, squid, turban shell, saury and abalone. Other types not shown here include: tuna, bonito, flatfish (flounder), yellowtail and sea bass.

Choosing the fish, and preparation method
It is hard to say which fish are best for your sushi because your country may not have the types I mention. One quick rule of thumb: larger fish like tuna are generally good to eat raw. Tuna blood is rich in iron and its amino acids break down slowly during the fermentation process, so tuna is ideal for eating raw. Small fish, especially those with shiny bluish backs, like sardines, tend to bruise easily, and even the Japanese will not eat them raw unless they are super fresh.
Keep fish at about 0°C because the protein fibers are shorter than in meat, making it easier for microorganisms to propagate. Carefully remove all of the scales and inner organs. Cleaning the fish properly is even more important than true freshness. When cutting and cleaning the fish, keep your knives, the knife handles, the cutting board and your hands as clean as possible.
Seafood suitable for sushi can be prepared in three ways:
·sprinkled with salt and/or allowed to sit in vinegar for a while
·cooked by simmering or grilling.
Here are some examples of seafood eaten raw: tuna, sea bream, prawn, squid, sea bass, young yellowtail, and flatfish (flounder). Fish with shiny, bluish backs may cause an unpleasant or allergic reaction, so if you want to serve them, place them in salt first for a while to inhibit bacterial action.
Again: your hands touch the raw fish at every step until the sushi reaches the table, so cleanliness is absolutely essential, even more than for sashimi. This is true not only for your hands but for the entire kitchen as well. Cleanliness is the law for the sushi chef. After all, the food we eat must be safe to eat.
I hope people all over the world will come to truly appreciate the fine flavor of Japanese cuisine, especially the wealth of knowledge found in our many fish recipes. And I certainly hope readers will experience the profound enjoyment that comes from eating fish in its natural state.

How to make sure the fish is fresh:
Above left: Touch beside a gill lightly. It should be soft.
Above center: The underside of the gills should be reddish in color.
Above right: The eyes should be clear.


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