Why Eating Raw Seafood Is So Popular In Japan

by Christian Monson
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How often do you go get all-you-can-eat sushi just to order California rolls every time? The traditional raw seafood that dominates Japanese cuisine can be intimidating, but you aren’t eating real Japanese food without it.

Raw seafood may seem like a strange ingredient to Westerners, but in Japan, it’s perfectly normal. In fact, it has a long history that’s led to its current popularity. Many traditions surround its use, and professional chefs prepare it in different and particular ways. Of course, the factor that ties it all together is that it’s delicious.

People trying Japanese dishes with raw seafood often have a lot of questions. If you’ve ever wondered about how this tradition came about and what it means for the taste and safety of the food, keep reading.

Raw seafood in Japanese cuisine

Obviously, not all Japanese food includes raw seafood, but it is very common. Some of these dishes are some of the most symbolic of the nation of Japan. Sashimi and sushi are two of the best examples. They both have long traditions and are held in high regard by Japanese chefs.

Sashimi

Raw seafood is featured in several Japanese dishes. The most notable is sashimi. Sashimi is raw seafood sliced into thin strips. There’s a long tradition associated with the dish, and chefs prepare it in specific ways. For example, the width of the slices depends on the fish, its age and the season.

In formal meals, sashimi is usually the first course, though it’s sometimes the main course. Regardless, chefs consider it the finest dish.

You eat sashimi plain so you can fully appreciate the flavor, but it does often come with condiments and garnishes. Soy sauce, wasabi, and ginger are the most common, along with shiso and daikon. Besides enhancing the taste, these condiments serve a practical purpose. Wasabi, for instance, can kill harmful bacteria living on the surface of the raw fish.

Sushi

Many Westerners associate sushi with raw seafood, but that’s not actually its defining feature. Sushi literally means “sour-tasting” in Japanese, and refers to the vinegar-soaked rice that’s the essential ingredient of the dish. This rice can envelop any number of ingredients from vegetables to fried meat, but traditionally, many types of sushi contain raw fish or other seafood.

The history of sushi and sashimi

Japan is an island with lots of coastlines, so it makes sense that seafood plays such a prominent role in the cuisine. Even within the country, most of the population lives along the ocean, so fishing has always been important to the culture.

Buddhism also helped make seafood so popular. Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th Century from China and began affecting the culture. Taking a life is very taboo in Buddhism, so in the 9th Century, Emperor Saga banned eating the meat of four-legged animals. This left just fish and birds, so the people started consuming even more seafood.

In the case of sashimi, whose name literally means “pierced body,” fisherman stab the fish in the brain immediately after catching it. This means the animal dies instantly. As a result, there’s no lactic acid in the fish’s muscles, so it remains fresh for some time.

Sushi, on the other hand, evolved as a kind of accident. Originally, without refrigeration, people had no way to transport fresh fish on their own. Similar to curing meat in the West, East Asian cultures developed a way to preserve meat by storing it with fermented rice. This fermentation kept bacteria from colonizing the fish and spoiling it.

At first, these Asian cultures would just throw the rice away when they were ready to eat the fish, but when the dish arrived in Japan, people started eating the rice, too. The rice-wrapped fish became increasingly popular, but the long fermentation time remained an obstacle. Eventually, the Japanese people developed rice vinegar which eliminated this problem. Sushi then rapidly became a major part of the cuisine.

Why raw?

Fish is usually cooked in Western cuisine, so the raw seafood common in Japan can be a bit surprising. However, raw meat is actually common in the Western tradition, so when you learn the details, you’ll realize it isn’t so strange.

For example, cured meats aren’t cooked. Ham and other such meats are raw. Instead of cooking them, people add salt which removes water and keeps bacteria from colonizing and spoiling the meat. 

Perhaps more similar to the Japanese traditions, fermenting meat in the West is also common. Fermentation involves introducing a specific harmless microbe to the product. These microbes prevent other dangerous microbes from colonizing the meat, so then you can store it for long periods and still eat it without cooking. Many types of sausages are fermented.

Even more common, the West has an elaborate fermentation tradition surrounding dairy. Think of all the different cheeses, yogurts and kefirs made by fermenting milk. Japanese cuisine just applies these same principles to seafood. Just like you may prefer the flavor of ham to a grilled pork chop, most Japanese prefer the full flavor of sashimi to cooked fish.

Purity and freshness

Purity is a significant part of Japanese culture. It’s even a main aspect of Shinto, the national religion. Water, especially seawater, is important to these principals. It cleanses impurities. 

These beliefs also affect the cuisine. Fresh seafood straight from the ocean is the pinnacle of purity. For centuries, coastal Japanese society consumed fish raw right after they were caught. As the society grew, people inland also wanted the raw fish but had no way to get it the same day. This led to various methods for preserving it like sushi.

Is it safe?

People delving into the culinary adventure of Japanese food sometimes are a little apprehensive consuming large amounts of raw seafood. You can rest assured, though, that a cooking tradition as old and intricate as Japan would not have lasted the centuries if it weren’t safe.

Sashimi, sushi and other Japanese dishes when prepared correctly by professional chefs are more than safe. Japanese cuisine is considered extremely healthy.

Over the centuries, the Japanese people have learned the precautions and treatments necessary to serve raw seafood safely. For example, saltwater fish don’t contain parasites that can infect humans, so sashimi is sourced from ocean fish. For fish that live in both saltwater and freshwater like salmon, the Japanese now farm them so they’re salt-water exclusive.

As you’ve read, the Japanese have also developed a number of methods to kill bacteria and keep the meat clean without cooking it. In addition to fermentation, raw seafood is usually combined with acidic condiments that kill any microbes growing on the surface.

Finally, in modern times, people take cleanliness seriously. Government regulations and inspections along with tough training and education make sure restaurants and every link in the food supply chain is safe and healthy, no matter the product.

You never know until you try it

If you’re interested in trying Japanese dishes that contain raw seafood, don’t let fear stop you. It may be different from what you’re used to, but that’s what makes it so great. Japanese cuisine isn’t just good for you, it’s delicious. Make it a part of your Japanese adventure.

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