Raw fish has found its way into many cuisines, and recently after reading a post on poke, I played a bit of a game with myself of trying to think of as many such dishes as I could. My only rule being,that no heat was involved, but “cooking” in acidic mixtures make the cut. Per Harold McGee, in his incredible tome On Food and Cooking, the reason for this popularity of raw fish is that the meat is relatively tender and naturally savory.
Cultures developed dishes around the least unadulterated form of protein – raw fish plus the incorporation of local ingredients. The results are delightfully diverse, but each method of preparation showcases the natural deliciousness of the fish in its most basic form.
Sushi and Sashmi
The traditional form of sushi is fermented fish and rice, preserved with salt in a process can be traced to Southeast Asia, where it remains popular today. Sushi literally means “it’s sour”, reflecting roots in fermentation. The history of this food is facinating, at least for me and several recent books touch on this subject: The Sushi Economy by Sasha Issenberg and The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson.
The sushi that springs to mind today, has little resemblance to the original version, the closest version to the original that the Japanese have is called funazuchi.
What we consider sushi was invented at the end of Edo period in Edo (1800’s). This sushi might be considered one of the earliest forms of fast food. It was meant to be eaten with one’s hands along a roadside – kind of the equivalent of a Japanese style taco truck.
Cervice (Latin American)
This popular citrus-marinated seafood appetizer is found throughout Latin America, and its appeal is felt well beyond these geographical borders especially as interest in Latin American cuisine grows. The fish used in this dish can include fin fish or shell fish, and while the fin fish is usually raw, the shell fish may be cooked. While the origin of the name is still subject to debate; agreement that cervice was first developed in Peru seems established. The assumption being that Peru, substantiated with evidence of fishing going back to the pre-Colombian period, has a strong history of fishing – at least longer than its competitors for the claim.
Ceviche is fish marinated in a citrus-based mixture, with lemons and limes being the citrus most commonly used. In addition to adding flavor, the citric acid causes the proteins in the seafood to become denatured, which pickles or “cooks” the fish without heat.
In Panama, ceviche is prepared with lime and lemon juice, chopped onions, celery, habanero pepper, and sea salt. The ceviche is served with little pastry shells called “canastitas.”
In Peru, it is composed of chunks of raw fish, with lime or lemon juice though sometimes bitter orange, sliced onion, and minced chilies are tossed in. The mixture is served with cancha (toasted kernels of corn), chunks of corn-on-the-cob, slices of cooked sweet potato and/or white potato, and yuyo (seaweed). Many Peruvian cevicherías offer a small glass of leche de tigre or leche de pantera as an appetizer, which is a small quantity of the marinade. I wonder if that is the equivalent of a shot of liqueur that “puts hair on your chest”?
In Ecuador, shrimp ceviche tends to be made with ketchup or tomato sauce. It is served in a bowl with toasted corn kernels as a side dish (plantain chips or chifles, and popcorn are also common accompaniments). A spondylus (type of clam) ceviche, a delicate clam only found in certain parts of the Manabí province, is a rare treat. The Incas referred to the spondylus as the food from the gods.
In Chile, ceviche is often made with fillets of halibut or Chilean sea bass, and marinated in lime and grapefruit juices, as well as finely minced garlic and red chile peppers, with the addition of fresh mint and cilantro.
In Mexico and parts beyond, it is served in cocktail cups with crackers, or as a tostada topping and taco filling. The marinade includes salt, lime, onion, chile, avocado, cilantro, and parsley, with tomatoes are often thrown in for good measure.
In Cuba, ceviche is often made using mahi-mahi, squid or tuna and prepared with a mixture of lime juice, salt, onion, green pepper, habaneros, and a bit of allspice.
In Costa Rica, the dish includes marinated fish, lime juice, salt, black pepper, minced onions, cilantro and finely minced chilies. It is usually served in a cocktail glass with soda crackers on the side. Popular condiments are tomato ketchup and tabasco.
Italy has something similar with its pesce crudo. The fish is dressed in lemon juice and olive oil, with raw anchovies being a favorite.
Gravlox is a Scandinavian dish of raw salmon cured in salt, sugar, and dill. Gravlax is traditionally served as an appetizer, sliced thinly and accompanied by hovmästarsås (also known as gravlaxsås), a dill and mustard sauce, served on bread, or with boiled potatoes. If you have never made gravlax before, its a tasty dish to make and worth the effort. Forgoing the traditional accompaniments, I serve my gravlox thinly sliced and topped with some fresh cream cheese and minced red onions. A few times I got fancy and made some savory waffles, subtly flavored with curry, as an accompaniment that proved to be very popular.
Around the Middle Ages, fishermen made gravlax by salting the salmon allowing it to lightly ferment by burying it in the sand above the high-tide line. The word gravlax comes from the Scandinavian word grav, literally “grave” or “hole in the ground”, and lax (or laks), which means “salmon”, thus gravlax is “salmon dug into the ground”. Not the most appealing of names but somehow it stuck.
Today fermentation is no longer used in the production process. Instead the salmon is “buried” in a dry marinade of salt, sugar, and dill, and cured for a few days. As the salmon cures, by the action of osmosis, the moisture turns the dry cure into a highly concentrated brine, which in Scandinavian cooking is incorporated as part of a sauce. This same method of curing can be used for any fatty fish, but salmon is the most common. This is a preserving method still used for preparing hákarl (“putrified shark”) in Iceland, rakfisk (“rotten fish”) in Norway, and for surströmming (“soured herring”) in Sweden. I am all for description names, but I think it can be taken to the extreme.
Poke and Lomi
Sapuche in his outstanding blog, The World Tastes Good has a wonderful detailed description of this native Hawaiian dish that Chef Sam Choy calls “Hawaii’s soul food.” According to some of the websites I reviewed, local residents insist a party just isn’t a party without it, and seafood lovers around the world are adopting it as their own, experimenting with local ingredients to create new and delightfully unique versions. Hawaii has at least one festival each September to celebrate its beloved poke.
Poke means to slice or cut. It usually consists of bite-sized pieces of raw, fresh fish mixed with seaweed and kukui nut relish. Today’s poke aficionados incorporate a range of ingredients, including all types of seafood, herbs, spices, nuts, marinades, fruits, vegetables, seasonings and tofu.
Try this poke recipe that Choy presented on ABC’s “Good Morning America” with Chef Emeril Lagasse. The directions could not be simpler; combine the ingredients, mix well and chill. Ingredients might be another story – folks living in Hawaii definitely have the edge.
- 1-¼ # fresh ahi tuna, cut into bite size cubes
- ¼ c yellow onion, minced
- ¼ c green onion, minced
- 3 T limu kohou (a reddish-brown seawood)
- 1 T ground innards from roasted kukui nuts, also know as inamona
- 2 tsp. sesame oil
Lomi is another Hawaiian preparation technique, that involves taking a piece of fish and first massaging it between the thumb and fingers to break down the muscles before salting. This extra work makes for a softer texture. From what I’ve found, salmon seems to be the fish of choice for this technique. I’ve seen this food referenced as lomi or lomi-lomi, meaning massage in Hawaiian.
Kinilaw is a Fillipino raw fish salad, specifically a Visayan regional specialty. A dish, based on my perusal of various websites, that incites strong passions and opinions among its loyal fans. I even found a kinilaw locator for the US. The blog, Market Manilla, has a wonderful step by step approach to making this dish. This dish is similar to cervice but instead of the acid from citrus fruit “cooking” the fish. Vinegar made from sugarcane, coconut, or nipa palm is the source of acidity. Like cervice, other local ingredients are added. Apparently, a version called “jumping salad” also exists, where tiny shrimp or crabs are sprinkled with salt and lime juice and eaten alive while moving.
Come on – this one was a gimme. Raw oysters have been celebrated and consumed by people of all walks of life, the world over. Never eaten a raw oyster? – no problem, here’s an easy crib sheet on the method. Care must be taken with selecting the delicacy as it should be alive just prior to consumption. If an oyster is found that cannot be open, they must be avoided. Oysters being filter feeders literally suck in their environment so they are very sensitive to their habitat and if something bad exists there, it gets passed on in the eating of the oyster.
Oyster consumption is believed to have been around since prehistoric times, given the evidence produced by the middens found. (Middens are piles of waste, and in this case it is the discarded shells of the oysters.)
Eating oysters has been likened to enjoying wine; the variety and environment imparts its stamp on the taste, texture and enjoyment of each oyster.
Is it possible that these various cultures spontaneously developed similar means of treating the raw fish? Maybe, but most likely the method was advanced as countries conquered counties and people took with them a taste for the familiar. How did the migrations of these recipes occur and in what direction? Maybe the topic for another post, I’d love to develop a visual that tracks foods and they change and develop around the world. I also recognize that what is included here is only a sampling of raw fish recipes that exist – Thai and Tahitian cuisine both have raw fish salads. If you have any other recipes, please pass them along.