In the raw
Photography: Antonia Pesenti
3:36PM, Oct 11, 2012
On a recent trip to Tokyo, I ate sushi for breakfast at the famous Tsukiji fish market. The fish had been pulled from the sea that morning and the taste was amazing. The Japanese have made sushi and sashimi an art form, and I was impressed by the many ways they prepared and served their raw seafood. During my week there, I ate chilled sea urchin roe that was so fresh it tasted salty and sweet at the same time, delicate rosy-pink tuna that needed no adornment, and wafer-thin slices of various fish that shined with the merest smudge of soy and pickled ginger.
The Japanese prepare sushi so well because they understand and respect the principles of sashimi. They only ever use impeccably fresh fish of the highest quality. They only ever prepare the fish with a very sharp knife. And the people who cut the fish are highly skilled, and you only ever get a small, thin piece; always just a mouthful. The serving temperature is slightly chilled and the accompaniments are always delicate; something that will enhance rather than overpower the fish. I enjoyed finely julienned radish, pickles and occasionally seaweed, carrots that had been ever so lightly cooked, salted eggplant strips, and cucumber that had been finely fanned and soaked in rice vinegar - things that had crunch to them and also a little bite. Seafood is rich and a bit sweet, so it benefits from this contrast.
While Japan is justly famous for its love of raw fish, the practice of serving fish lightly cured or simply sliced occurs worldwide. There is Italian tuna crudo, French tartare, Spanish escabeche, Peruvian ceviche and Swedish gravlax. A couple of my favourite raw dishes in Australia are Matt McConnell's lightly salt- and spice-cured yellowtail kingfish "pancetta", which he serves finely sliced and drizzled with lemon oil and fresh thyme leaves at Bar Lourinhã, and Neil Perry's fabulous tuna tartare, served with a Moroccan-style eggplant and cumin mayonnaise at Rockpool Bar & Grill.
Now that we're heading into summer, raw fish is just the kind of food we want to be eating, as it's light, refreshing and simple to prepare. Raw or cured fish is also perfect for entertaining, as it forms an impressive dish without being overly complicated to make. Take, for instance, a few thin slices of sashimi-grade yellowfin tuna, add some finely sliced shallots, some toasted sesame seeds and a dressing of Japanese soy, mirin and rice vinegar. To make this dish a success, all you need is an excellent fishmonger (buy the tuna on the day of the dinner party so it's at its very best) and a very sharp knife. When I visit friends' houses, I'm often amazed how blunt their knives are; make sure you get yours sharpened regularly. You could also embellish this dish with some finely julienned daikon, carrot or cucumber. Make sure your plates are cold, and keep the tuna in the fridge right up until serving, but don't keep it on ice, because fish absorbs water.
If you have a larger group, you could cure a side of salmon, or as I prefer, ocean trout. Gravlax makes a lovely, simple first course or centrepiece as part of a buffet. (See the October issue of GT for a masterclass on gravlax.) All you need is some excellent rye bread, some lemon wedges and a lightly whipped crème fraîche with finely chopped dill, red onion and chives.
There are countless ways of curing salmon, though. Drizzling the salmon with Campari or gin or vodka, and then scattering it with a curing mix of ground spices, salt, crushed coriander seeds, chopped fresh coriander leaves and a drizzle of honey creates a nice combination; Campari with lemon and orange zest also works well. I'm also fond of drizzling the salmon with vodka and then adding a salt-and-sugar curing mix with a good amount of dill and grated beetroot.
I recommend you slice the salmon an hour or two before serving, and before your guests arrive, because this can take some time and patience. Use a very sharp, thin knife and slice the fish as thinly as possible.
For something even simpler, lay out a whole side of the very best cold-smoked salmon or ocean trout you can get your hands on: my favourite is the excellent Tasmanian Woodbridge smoked ocean trout. I like to serve it with horseradish cream, crusty white bread, baby capers and lemon wedges. As I was reminded in Japan, when a dish consists of only a few ingredients, it's imperative that the quality and freshness are the very best because they're amplified. Is there a better example of simple entertaining? Delicious.