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Sashimi: more than just raw fish

June 20, 2016

The Japanese love of seafood is legendary. This is hardly surprising, given that Japan boasts at least 30,000 kilometers of shoreline — the sixth longest in the world — and lies close to some of the richest, most fertile fishing grounds on Earth.

What is far less obvious, especially to many first-time visitors, is why so much of the catch is eaten raw.

Sushi needs no introduction these days, as the world discovers the pleasures of eating morsels of fish, most of it uncooked, on bite-sized patties of vinegared rice. But in Japan, raw fish is just as likely to be eaten without the rice — as sashimi.

This preparation, known in the Kansai region as "otsukuri," has origins as far back as a thousand years, and has been a central element in Japanese cuisine since the Edo period (1603–1868).

The classic combination

Whether as a waterfront fisherman's snack, the focal feature of a light lunch thrown together at home, or as just one essential element in a multicourse kaiseki banquet at a high-end traditional restaurant, sashimi is most typically served as follows:

The fish is cut into slivers that can be eaten in a single bite and usually arranged on the plate with edible garnishes known collectively as tsuma.

Common garnishes include the green leaves, flowering tips or young sprouts of shiso (perilla) herb. There may also be shreds of daikon (long white radish) or colorful varieties of seaweed.

Almost invariably, sashimi is served with shoyu (soy sauce) and the grated root of the green wasabi (Japanese horseradish) plant. A dab of wasabi is placed on the fish, which is then eaten dipped into a small saucer of shoyu (it is a breach of etiquette to pour soy sauce on your food).

The rich, salty shoyu imparts extra depth of taste and umami, drawing out and enhancing the protein-rich flavors of the seafood. The grated wasabi not only adds its distinctive pungency, it has long been reputed to counteract the possible ill effects of harmful bacteria or even parasites.

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