Sashimi: a Japanese Cooking Philosophy
Japan is a nation of islands, so, as in the Philippines, fish has always been a staple of the Japanese diet. In the seas around Japan, the fishing has, until recently, been plentiful. Sadly, poor fisheries management and severe over-fishing in the past century have had a serious impact on sustainability while current costs are ever on the rise. Yet fish continues to be popular, at any price.
Raw fish is served in many different countries. Since the beginning of time, the Filipinos have made kinilaw, which is similar to Peruvian ceviche. The French eat poisson cru, while the Italians prefer carpaccio or pesce crudo, and the Scandinavian gravadlax is delightful with vodka. The Fijians, Tongans, and Tahitians like it with coconut milk, the Catalans, Koreans, and Thais prefer it in a salad. The Japanese created sashimi.
Sashimi has been a favoured delicacy in Japan since the 17th century. In “Japanese Cooking: a Simple Art,” author Shizuo Tsuji describes sashimi as ‘the best loved food in Japan… [and] unbearably exotic.’ Japanese cuisine subscribes to the belief that food should retain its natural taste using the minimum of artificial processes. Sashimi, then, must be the epitome of this Japanese cooking philosophy.
Fish—only the best quality—is the most popular meat for sashimi. Sliced into bite-sized pieces, it is then dipped in soy sauce or smeared with wasabi. It may also be garnished with pickled ginger, a perilla leaf, like mint, or shredded daikon, the Asian white radish that appears in many Japanese dishes in a variety of forms.
Just about any seafood can be served as sashimi, although the most commonly used fish are salmon and tuna. This is mostly due to affordability and availability. But in Kochi, a large, rural island to the south of Osaka, the local specialty is katsuo, or bonito. And we have come at almost the best time of year to appreciate its sublime flavour.
Katsuo is a plump, charcoal-coloured fish shaped like a torpedo, averaging the size of a man’s arm, fingertip to elbow. It is closely related to the tuna, but smaller and faster. Dried, fermented, smoked, and grated, it becomes katsuobushi. Katsuobushi flakes are umami-dense and a key ingredient in dashi, a basic stock and the cornerstone of Japanese cooking. Served as sashimi, katsuo is, quite simply, perfection.
On my first night in Kochi, I joined some new friends at an intimate sashimi bar in a narrow back street. The katsuo launched a wonderful meal—my first Japanese feast—and the most interesting part was being able to lean over the counter to watch it being prepared. The creased but confident chef seared the fish briefly on the outside, then carved it delicately into miniature steaks that could be easily airlifted to the lips with chopsticks, via a nugget of wasabe. He lay three slices (always an odd number) on a perilla leaf and sprinkled them with raw white onion. I have always loved the richness of salmon sashimi. It’s like biting into a firm, triple-cream Brie. But this was quite different, and it is defying my best attempts to describe its clean, velvety subtlety and the sensual, almost voluptuous, way it slid down my throat. As we waxed lyrical, our lips pouring forth “oishiis”—delicious—as liberally as the waiter was pouring the sake, our chef beamed toothily, delighted with our jovial enthusiasm.
The next day, our lovely hosts drove us up into the mountains behind the city for fresh air and edifying scenery. On the return journey, we paused at a small and much-favoured local fish shop to buy a large, plump katsuo for dinner. We watched, fascinated, as the fishmonger carved off fins and head in swift, sure movements with what was obviously a bitingly sharp blade.
Sashimi sounds like such a simple dish: slices of raw, unadorned fish on a plate. How hard can it be to make? Yet it takes time to perfect the skill of preparing sashimi properly, and you should know that I certainly won’t be wielding those blades with any dexterity any time soon.
Sashimi knives are high-maintenance tools that must be sharpened daily to ensure that the single beveled edge is always razor sharp. And the chef or fishmonger must be well versed in the texture of the fish he is dissecting, the way the muscles lie, and the thickness of the slice that best complements the fish and its flavour.
Expertly skinned, deboned, and filleted, our fish was soon packed in ice in a polystyrene box. Our efficient fishmonger also handed over a bag of the scraps required to make our own dashi. Then we headed home to create sashimi par excellence, or Katsuo no Tataki. This is a speciality of Kochi Prefecture. Apparently the late Spring catch (hatsu-gatsuo) was once considered so desirable that a popular saying suggested a man would trade his wife for a soupçon of katsuo. We have missed the Spring migration, but have made it in time for the modori gatsuo, or the coming home for the winter, the fish meaty and succulent.
Smoked over a sweet-smelling rice straw fire in a barbecue on the driveway, and seared briefly in the leaping flames, the katsuo was then submerged in a large bowl of ice. (This is done in order to arrest the cooking process, and ensure the fish remains raw on the inside.) Once it had cooled, our chef sliced the fish carefully, gently, smoothly into small fillets, rather thicker than traditional sashimi, before arranging them in a wide, deep bowl with a ponzu sauce of citrus and sake. Garnished with ginger and radish sprouts and topped with a raw egg, Katsuo no Tataki is truly exotic. Truly heavenly. Perhaps it’s lucky I don’t have a wife to give away. How about a husband?
Witten by Alexandra Gregori
Illustration By Gasket91