After the hors d’oeuvre course is served, the first dish presented in a traditional Japanese meal is most often a course of raw fish or other meat. The general term for this course is o-tsukuri. The root of the word, tsukuru, means to make, create or — if you read into the meaning — to arrange.

Many people are familiar with the term sashimi referring to raw fish. Sashimi literally means “sliced meat.” Fish or other meats — chicken, beef, venison, etc. — served raw or very rare and sliced fairly thin, may all be considered sashimi. In turn, the first course, o-tsukuri, may also be referred to as sashimi.

The difference between the words is obtuse, and the one you choose to use is generally a matter of personal preference. However, as a guide, at sushi counters and izakaya, the word sashimi seems most appropriate, while at finer establishments — ryotei and kappo restaurants, for example — the more elegant o-tsukuri term is often employed.

Interestingly, the term chori suru, which is usually translated “to cook,” also includes these raw preparations. Tsukuru is one of the five methods of cooking. Here we see that the washoku concept of cooking does not always involve heat or other major manipulation of food, but rather a simple arrangement of the freshest seasonal ingredients.

While o-tsukuri is often thought of as fish — or other marine life — there are no steadfast rules. Some of the best o-tsukuri courses I have had were not fish. Very fresh, certified, salmonella-free local chicken — called toroku (certified) jidori (local, often free-range, chicken) in Japanese — may be served in a variety of ways. The tender breast meat may be sliced thin — and possibly flash-grilled, tataki-style — served with soy sauce, grated ginger, onions and garlic slices. The liver, kidney and hearts of these carefully handled poultry may also be served in a similar fashion.

Thinly sliced beef and venison may also be served raw or rare. Half-frozen loin of venison slices very nicely and is delicious, served cold with a ginger soy sauce — a complete departure from the traditional fish o-tsukuri or sashimi. While not set in stone, one more rule may apply here: The stronger the flavors — i.e. liver, ginger — the less likely the dish is to be found at a fine restaurant, and conversely, the more likely the item is to be seen at izakaya drinking pubs.

O-tsukuri, for that matter, doesn’t even have to limit itself to animal protein. In vegetarian shojin cooking, the raw course might be a sashimi of konnyaku — a starchy tuber that, pounded into a paste and cooked, becomes opaque and gelatinous. Sliced very thinly and served with plenty of soy and wasabi, this root is a delightful alternative to the traditional o-tsukuri. I also like to slice the first bamboo shoots of early spring very thinly, blanching them quickly in boiling water and then arranging them on a plate with sansho leaf-infused soy sauce — take no ko no o-tsukuri.

O-tsukuri doesn’t necessarily mean totally raw. As the above vegetarian dishes demonstrate, food prepared in a style that emulates sashimi — thinly sliced and served with a sauce on the side — may be called o-tsukuri. Partially cooked rare or seared meats may also be called o-tsukuri.

If an animal protein is not served totally raw, it may be presented in one of several ways. The description “tataki-style” is used when the food is seared quickly on the outside while being left raw inside. Another way of presenting food rare is called shimofuri. Shimofuri is when the filleted fish or meat being used is quickly blanched or “washed” in boiling water.

Today we will look at tataki, and next week we will tackle shimofuri.

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Maguro no tataki

The word tataki has two meanings when talking about Japanese food. The first meaning comes from the verb tataku, to pound or hammer, and means exactly that. The other meaning of tataki — the one we are using today — is used to describe fish or another meat that has been seared on the outside and left raw in the middle.

Maguro is the word often used generically in Japanese to mean tuna. For this dish, the nonfatty red portion of the tuna loin works best. Young tuna (yokowa) or bonito (katsuo) are especially delicious in this preparation. Whichever rich fish you use, you must specify that you will be using it for tataki, one of the many kinds of sashimi — you can say this in Japanese, sashimi-yo or tataki-yo no maguro. Using only the finest sashimi-grade tuna will ensure the flavor and safety of your dish.

Once the fish is flash-grilled, many chefs like to submerge it in ice water to arrest cooking. I don’t do this (because it washes away good fat and flavor), but rather I let it cool by fanning just briefly before slicing and presenting the fish.

Onions, after they’ve been sliced thinly, should be run under very cold water for a few minutes to rinse away the sulfur flavor and to crisp them. These are then called “rinsed onions” or sarashi tamanegi. The garlic must also be sliced very thinly, but not rinsed.

The ponzu or ponzu joyu sauce is best, of course, if you make it yourself (see Japan Times, May 20, 2001), but very good handmade ponzu is also available now in better markets throughout Japan.

300 grams of tuna loin (maguro), raw sashimi-grade
1/2 medium-sized onion, sliced very thinly
3 cloves of garlic, sliced very thinly
4 or 5 shiso leaves, shredded
4 tablespoons of ponzu sauce per person
1/2 cup sake
pinch of salt

1) Trim off any excess fat or tough tendons from the tuna. If the skin is attached and it is fairly thin, leave the skin attached. If not, remove the tough skin and discard.

2) Skewer the fish crosswise so that it may easily be handled over a flame.

3) Sprinkle the sake all over the fish and then salt very lightly.

4) Hold the fish over a very hot gas flame just long enough to sear the skin and flesh on all sides. You may also use a hand-held burner — like a pastry torch — for this job.

5) Remove the fish to a plate and let cool.

6) Rinse the sliced onions in a colander under very cold water for a few minutes, until the raw sulfur taste is gone. Drain and squeeze all of the water out of the onions.

7) Slice the seared tuna into 1-cm thick pieces.

8) Arrange the pieces in four individual serving dishes, layering with onions and garlic. Top with the shredded shiso and ponzu just before serving. Consume immediately.

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