Pleasures of raw seafood

I LOVE fishing. Especially when it involves hunting for a target fish that can be eaten raw. Nearly every fish or other sea critter is edible, but not all is edible raw. Raw fish has been in fashion in the West for some time, but sushi, sashimi and ceviche have been part of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine for centuries. And while the people of Rabi are known to enjoy live-caught raw fish straight from the sea, it is not so common in traditional Fijian cuisine, save for the fully-cured kokoda of Spanish mackerel, or walu, which is not technically raw but “cooked” in lemon juice. Carpaccio, crudo, sashimi, sushi, tartare, tiradito, ceviche, poke-raw seafood and meat dishes are a hot culinary trend these days. The polar opposite of fussy, complicated foods, most raw proteins succeed on their own strengths of absolute freshness and melt-in-your-mouth texture. With relatively simple presentations, they intrinsically connect us to the very essence of their sources of which Fiji’s pristine waters are so abundantly blessed.

Sushi and sashimi

The Japanese love of seafood is legendary. This is hardly surprising, given that Japan boasts at least 30,000 kilometres 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 early 1600s. Whether as a waterfront fisherman’s snack, the focal feature of a light lunch thrown together at home in Japan, sashimi is most typically served cut into slivers that can be eaten in a single bite and usually arranged on the plate with edible garnishes that complement raw fish. 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 soy sauce and the grated root of the green wasabi (Japanese horseradish). A dab of wasabi is placed on the fish, which is then eaten dipped into a small saucer of soy. In Japanese cuisine, it is a breach of etiquette to pour soy sauce on to the food, you just dip. The rich, salty soy imparts extra depth of taste and umami, drawing out and enhancing the protein-rich flavours of the seafood. The green wasabi not only adds its distinctive pungency and sinus-clearing heat, it has long been reputed to counteract the possible ill effects of harmful bacteria.

Hawaiian pokè

For Hawaii locals, pokè tastes like home. The fascination with pokè (pronounced POH-kay) has become a global phenomenon, thanks to hip eateries focused on fresh, healthy fare and beautiful dishes that make colourful ingredients leap from the plate to the eye. In simplest terms, pokè is a raw fish salad or as some have observed, deconstructed sushi in a bowl. Think of the freshest fish, cleanly sliced and glistening in seasonings that range from sweet to salty, nutty to crunchy. My Malamala Beach Club pokè dish showcases Fiji’s mouth-melting yellowfin tuna tossed in finely grated Fijian ginger, gluten-free Kikkoman soy, seasoned seaweed, avocado, lumpfish caviar, bonito dried fish flakes and a touch of pungent Chinese sesame oil, sea urchin aioli (cawaki) and toasted sesame seeds. It is one of the only ways I’ll eat fresh yellowfin tuna, other than sashimi. Hawaiians have long known the pleasures of seasoned raw seafood. Being surrounded by ocean probably has something to do with it. Way back, long before British explorer Captain Cook landed on the islands in the 18th century, native Hawaiians would prepare i’a maka (raw fish), chopping up reef fish, bones and all. They would season it with sea salt dried in the sun, limu (seaweed), and ‘inamona (roasted and crushed kukui nut, or candlenut). But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the dish really gained popularity and the word pokè, which simply means to slice, or to cut crosswise into pieces, came to be associated with the preparation we know now thanks to Hawaiian chefs like the legendary pokè king Sam Choy.

Poisson cru

If you’ve been to the islands of Tahiti, chances are you’ve tried their signature dish, poisson cru. It’s on nearly every menu in Tahiti and its flavour defines the essence of French Polynesia; sweet, tender, refreshing, exotic and raw. In French, poisson cru literally means raw fish. It consists of raw tuna lightly marinated in lime, not lemon, juice and mixed with a delicious blend of diced vegetables and coconut milk. It is very much like the Fijian kokoda except the fish is only lightly cured, maybe for 5 or 10 minutes instead of hours, and contains other vegetables like capsicum and carrot. The abundance of Tahitian lime in that country also helps distinguish poisson cru from its Fijian cousin brother.

Only use the freshest fish

Another key factor in eating raw fish is freshness. It goes without saying that a fish that has not been treated well from the second it came out of the sea is not going to be a good fish to eat raw. A good guide is to ensure the fish has not been in the danger temperature zone (5 to 60 degrees Celsius) for more than 4 hours. For example I would not use any fish sold at the markets or at roadside stalls for a raw fish dish, you are just tempting fate and possible fish poisoning if you do. Sushi-grade fish are caught quickly, bled upon capture, gutted soon after and iced immediately. It matters, a lot. A piece of fish can be perfectly good to eat cooked but nasty raw. Doctors will always err on the side of caution and recommend that pregnant women should avoid all raw foods for this very reason.

Hints on keeping fish fresh

If you hunt and catch fish and want to eat them raw, remember to follow a few simple rules. Bleed the fish by slicing through the gills and/or cutting a slice near the tail all the way to the backbone to reduce blood contaminating the fish and flavour. Gut the fish on the boat. Most worms that are found in fish live in the animal’s guts, then migrate to the flesh after the fish dies. Fast gutting prevents this in most cases. Bring ice on the boat, even in cold weather. Buy many bags, and then buy one more bag: it’s worth it if you want to enjoy your fish raw. Eating raw fish is a wonderful way to enjoy our local seafood, especially yellowfin tuna and deep-sea snapper. Just be smart on knowing how fresh the fish is, and ensure you only buy from reputable fishmongers who sell sashimi-grade fish to our resorts and hotels.

* Visit chef Seeto for lunch and sample his yellowfin tuna pokè at Malamala Beach Club.

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