Ever wondered why Japanese eat raw fish? We all know when it comes to preparing food, every cuisine around the world has its own traditions and methods on how to prepare fish and other meat. In Japan, however, eating raw fish has been an important part of Japanese culture for centuries.
When prepared right, these dishes are an absolute delight!
With its strong Buddhist roots, meat was somewhat of a taboo in Japan, historically speaking. And since Japan is an island nation, fish soon became alternative meat filled with protein. But there’s more to why Japanese eat raw fish than just their Buddhist roots. Eating raw fish also has many health benefits that are preserved in its flesh and oils.
Let’s explore why Japanese eat raw fish!
Why Japanese Eat Raw Fish
Why Japanese eat raw fish?
As a Japanese, I have eaten raw fish dishes like sushi, sashimi and other such raw fish. A lot of non-Japanese friends don’t understand how someone can eat raw fish. Most of them are obviously deterred by the idea, of course, as they think it might be unhealthy. But that’s not true. There are three main reasons why Japanese raw fish and I’m going to explain it here, just like how I explained it to my friends.
Japanese eat raw fish because it has several health benefits. Fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids which makes it extremely healthy. But when cooked, most of these healthy omega-3 fatty acids are lost. Another reason why Japanese eat raw fish is because it’s an island nation and being close to the sea, the nation has a strong history of ocean and freshwater fishing. And the third reason why Japanese eat raw fish is because of its Buddhist roots. The Buddhist and Shinto religions discourage its followers from eating other meat due to which fish became the alternate source of dietary protein.
So you can see why eating raw fish became so popular in Japan. It’s available in plenty, is packed with nutrition, and is ingrained in the Buddhist culture.
History Behind Why Japanese Eat Raw Fish
The traditional Japanese cuisine – Washoku is the name of the cuisine that concentrates on raw fish. And in fact, in December 2013, Washoku made the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. So you can see Washoku cuisine is seen as an important part of the Japanese culture as it was established some 4000-5000 years ago, around the Jomon period.
Since the Jomon period, fish caught in the local coastal waters of Japan are sold in the fish markets where people come to buy fresh fish. The chefs or cooks in Japan serve this fresh raw fish with different sides which helps them create different types of dishes.
How did Japanese Start Eating Raw Fish?
The culture of eating raw fish in Japan can be dated back to the 7th century when Buddhism became part of the Japanese culture. Buddhism doesn’t believe in killing animals for consumption and because of this, by the 10th century, most Japanese people put a hard stop to eating meat.
Since Buddhism entered the culture, the Japanese slowly shifted to Pescetarianism aka pesco-vegetarianism where they eat seafood but not pork, red meats, and poultry. And obviously add a lot of veggies as accompaniments in the dish.
Avoiding meat other than fish or other seafood was prevalent in Japan even before Buddhism entered the country. Shintoism, Japan’s native religion, also has the same belief. And people who followed Shintoism naturally preferred fish over any other meat. So this concept was embraced with open arms in Japan.
During the Edo period, the consumption of fresh fish caught from the oceans became popular. And over the years, as the cuisine became more popular, the need to make it more flavorful and presentable became important as well.
Today, however, chicken, pork, or any other meat isn’t looked down upon in Japan. Pretty any restaurant will serve meat other than fish as well. Japanese karaage (fried chicken), in fact, is very popular amongst the locals as well as the tourists. Having said that, eating raw fish like sushi and sashimi in Japan is still an important part of the culture and the Japanese diet.
Health Benefits of Eating Raw Fish
What are the health benefits of eating raw fish?
There’s a lot of misconception about eating raw fish. In fact, many of my non-Japanese friends think that it’s unhealthy. But that’s not entirely true. Eating raw fish has lots of health benefits which is also why the Japanese eat raw fish. Here are the three main health benefits of eating raw fish:
- Raw fish is packed with proteins. It is also low in saturated fats and carbs.
- Raw fish has an abundance of PUFA, polyunsaturated fatty acids, aka omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are known to boost the functioning of the brain, development of the body and also improve heart conditions.
- When you compare raw fish with cooked fish, raw fish doesn’t have heterocyclic amines (HCA) which are known to cause cancer. Heterocyclic amines are developed in fish or other meats when it is exposed to high temperatures like frying it on a pan or grilling it.
Japanese Eat Raw Fish Because It’s In Abundance
Japan has many rivers and lakes that are accessible and several harbors and seaports for fishing. Being an island nation, it’s obvious that the Japanese would prefer fresh fish over any other meat.
Japanese usually prefer to consume either freshwater or saltwater fish that is in season to avoid stocking of fish. As soon as the fish is caught it’s flash-frozen either in the next couple of hours or in the boat itself. Flash freezing is a process that keeps the fish free from parasites that may be harmful upon consumption.
What is Washoku Cuisine Of Raw Fish
A dish prepared in the traditional style of Washoku has seven primary ingredients: Rice, greens, marine plants, root crops, soybeans or pulse crops, veggies, and fruits.
And for animal protein there’s fish. Washoku cuisine offers a complete, well-balanced meal because it has a mix of all the nutrients that are required to maintain a healthy diet.
This is why the rate of heart disease and related conditions is low in Japan. In fact, the Japanese diet is considered one of the healthiest diets in the world.
The combination of Umami and Raw Fish
The fundamental flavors of Japanese cuisine are salt, savory, sweet, bitter, and sour. And Umami refers to the savory flavor. This Umami flavor is achieved by combining glutamic acid from soy sauce and inosinic acid from fish.
Popular Japanese Raw Fish Dishes
Sushi can be traced back thousands of years ago during the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573). During this time, people used fermented rice to cover raw fish in order to preserve it. Now the dish has developed into a complex art with several side dishes, giving you a delectable presentation! Sushi has vinegared rice stuffed with small bites of fish, accompanied by seaweed and veggies.
Before refrigeration came into the picture, people would use vinegar or soy sauce to cure the ingredients of sushi including fish, or sometimes even cook it. Sushi is a dish that is popular all over the world today and no tourist that comes to Japan will leave without at least trying it.
To prepare Sashimi, other than fresh fish, other seafood like sea urchins, shellfish, squid, and octopus is also used. Sashimi consists of raw fish like salmon, tuna, and flounder cut in bite-sized slices and served with wasabi and soy sauce. It also accompanied with shellfish, squid and shrimp.
Japan saw this all the way back in the 10th century. People used rice and salt to preserve raw fish – this process was called pickling. In the olden days, the rice was thrown away before eating the pickled fish but today it is served with rice.