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.