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Friday, April 27, 2012
What to eat when you can't stand the heat
By MAKIKO ITOH
Special to The Japan Times
As the weather gets warmer, foods that are served cold and require little to no cooking become more appealing. In Japan the choice of such dishes goes way beyond a plain green salad. One of these is sashimi, a food that defines Japanese cuisine. While it's eaten year round along with its first cousin sushi, a cool plate of sashimi is especially appetizing on a sweltering hot day during a typical Japanese summer.
All kinds of food besides raw fish are eaten as sashimi, cut into thin slices and eaten dipped in soy sauce and condiments: tofu, yuba (bean curd skin), konnyaku (devil's tongue), mushrooms and various vegetables.
But the most controversial types may be raw animal meat, such as beef (gyūsashi), beef liver (rebasashi), horse (basashi), whale meat and goat. Even chicken, which is never eaten raw in Western cultures, is eaten as torisashi (completely raw) or toriwasa (blanched on the outside). Pork, on the other hand is never served raw, though you may see it blanched and chilled as "boiled pork sashimi."
Outside of Japan, traditional Japanese cuisine has the image of comprising mostly fish and vegetables, so this enthusiastic consumption of raw meat may come as a surprise. But there is historical evidence that up until the Genroku era (1688-1703) of the Edo Period, when various edicts issued by the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate forbade the killing and eating of various animals, people ate all kinds of proteins. The spread of Buddhism did dampen the demand for meat, but there was no hard line drawn between cooked versus raw meat consumption. If someone was willing to eat a particular animal, they would eat it in any form as long as it was tasty.
While the eating of animal meat in general went underground after the Genroku era edicts, fish consumption was never banned. So the sashimi that is most popular today — pristine, glistening pieces of raw fish presented artfully on a plate — evolved during the remainder of the Edo Period, which lasted until 1867.
After that, meat consumption was openly embraced again, as it is today.
Raw meat dishes are seldom prepared at home, however. Delicacies such as chicken sashimi are only available at certain specialized eateries, such as yakitori restaurants that kill their chickens in the morning for consumption that day. There's always been an implicit trust in the ability and integrity of food professionals that they know how fresh and safe the meat is.
But last year this trust was shaken to its core due to more than 35 E. coli food-poisoning incidents, including five deaths, caused by a dish called yukke. Originally a Korean dish that includes raw chopped beef and raw egg, yukke has become tremendously popular at the Korean barbecue restaurants that have been popping up all over the country.
It turned out that Yakiniku-zakaya Ebisu, the restaurant chain that served the contaminated yukke, was using beef that was not designated as fit for raw consumption, and that furthermore had not been properly trimmed. As a result, the government implemented more stringent regulations for preparation of raw beef.
And earlier this month, the government's Food Safety Commission announced that sales of raw beef liver will likely be banned from June, causing uproar among rebasashi aficionados.
How concerned should you be about eating raw meat? The Food Safety Commission regularly issues information on its website (www.fsc.go.jp), and it recommends that all meats should be cooked thoroughly and not eaten raw, or even underdone. This is in line with recommendations made by similar government entities in other countries.
Caution is prudent when it comes to raw or underdone meat, especially for those with a weakened immune system, the very young or elderly, or pregnant women. Personally I stay away from raw meat unless it's at a reputable restaurant. You do get what you pay for when it comes to food, so if you're eating cheap yukke at a cut-rate restaurant, you may be taking a gamble with your health.
No such recommendations have been issued for other proteins that are eaten raw in Japan, including fish and eggs. Raw eggs are an integral part of everyday Japanese food — mixed with hot rice and soy sauce for breakfast, served on top of cold noodles and used as a dipping sauce. If you do like your eggs runny, make sure you are getting freshly laid ones from a reputable source. And see the recipe below for how to safely prepare raw fish for sashimi at home.
I'm sometimes asked at what age young children can start eating raw fish. There is no hard and fast rule for this, and opinions in Japanese parenting communities vary from "as soon as the child can eat solid food" to "not until he or she is in elementary school." You may want to restrict your toddlers to cooked or marinated sushi items such as tamago-yaki (omelette), ikura (marinated salmon eggs) and ebi (boiled shrimp), and gradually ease them in to raw fish.
But raw or undercooked protein is not necessarily the culprit when it comes to food poisoning. Some of the most serious large-scale food poisoning recently, including the E. coli outbreak in Germany last year that caused dozens of deaths, were caused by contaminated vegetables such as sprouts and spinach. As consumers, the best thing we can do is to make informed dining decisions, and keep our kitchen prep areas safe and clean.
Makiko Itoh is the author of "The Just Bento Cookbook" (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.