Japanese cuisine is well-known for its enthusiastic embrace of raw or barely cooked foods. Seafood in particular is frequently consumed when it’s raw; sometimes it’s so fresh, it’s still moving on the plate.
Throughout much of Japan’s culinary history, a notable exception to this trend has been oysters. This is rather curious given the fact that the oyster is one of the few animal-based foods that has long been enjoyed raw in societies where the norm has been to cook meat and seafood thoroughly, such as Europe and the post-colonial Americas. (Note: The oysters discussed here are the edible bivalves called kaki in Japanese, in particular magaki, the “true oyster” [Crassostrea gigas], and iwagaki, the “rock oyster” [Crassostrea nippona]).
Oysters were eaten raw to a limited extent in the areas where they were caught, such as Edo (present-day Tokyo), right after they were gathered. Until the Meiji Era (1868-1912), though, raw oysters remained a risky no-no, especially among the upper classes, even though other raw seafood was considered safe. One possible explanation for this is that oyster preparation was heavily influenced early on by the cuisine of the Chinese court, where all seafood was cooked as a matter of course. In early recipes that we have knowledge of, oysters are stewed, simmered, grilled and otherwise cooked thoroughly. Marinating the oysters in vinegar (sugaki) was the closest oyster preparation got to raw.
However, the general lack of raw oyster consumption doesn’t mean that oysters were scarce or unpopular. Oysters are found in the wild all along coastal Japan, and could be gathered quite easily in and around Edo. Oyster farming has been practiced since the early Edo Period (1603-1868), when fleets of boats laden with oysters would make their way from Hiroshima Prefecture — which is still the leading producer of farmed oysters in the country — to Osaka every fall and winter to be eagerly consumed at the Imperial court of Kyoto and elsewhere in the region.
Not only are Japanese-farmed oysters shipped worldwide, varieties developed here are used as seed oysters elsewhere. For example, the Kumamoto oyster, which originates from Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture, has been grown very successfully in North America since the mid-20th century.
However, since the Meiji Era, European ways of consuming oysters have had a bigger influence, leading to the introduction of raw oysters on the half shell. A written account of Yokohama’s history from the mid-Meiji Era describes how the regular foreign customers of a tea shop in Yokohama, which had a large European expatriate enclave, gathered the oysters they saw near the mouth of the Horikawa River, brought them in and showed the Japanese proprietor how to serve them on the half shell.
Nowadays, Western-style oyster bars are plentiful in Japan’s bigger cities, and oyster shacks serving them raw, grilled and more pop up at seaside resorts whenever oysters are in season.
One much-loved, Western-influenced oyster recipe in Japan is kaki furai (fried oysters), where shucked oysters are breaded and deep-fried. The origin of kaki furai is a little uncertain, but it very likely got its start at the legendary Ginza restaurant Rengatei, where several recipes that define yōshoku (European-influenced Japanese cuisine) were invented.
The spiky, crunchy, handmade breadcrumbs contrast nicely with the tender, briny, oysters, which should never be overcooked.
Fried oysters (Kaki furai)
Use freshly opened oysters, or pre-shucked oysters sold in vacuum packs or jars in the refrigerated section of the supermarket. These pre-shucked oysters are meant to be cooked and eaten on the same day they are purchased, and should never be consumed raw.
Ingredients (serves two)
• 1 large day-old baguette
• 16 large raw oysters, shucked
• 2 tablespoons potato starch (katakuriko) or cornstarch
• 30 grams salt
• 1 liter cold water
• 1 large egg
• 2 tablespoons cake or pastry flour
• Oil for deep frying
• ½ small cabbage, finely shredded
• 1 lemon, cut into wedges
• Japanese-style Worcestershire sauce, tartar sauce or soy sauce to taste (optional)
Make the breadcrumbs. Cut the baguette in half lengthwise, and remove all the crumb. Shred the crumb with your hands into rough breadcrumbs, just a little bigger than commercially packaged panko. Store the breadcrumbs in a sealed plastic bag, and refrigerate for up to a day or freeze for up to a month.
Drain the oysters and put them into a bowl. Sprinkle with the katakuriko starch. Rub the starch off the oysters gently, removing any surface residue with it.
Dissolve the salt in a large bowl of water. Put the oysters in the resulting salt water a few at a time and rub gently to remove any remaining starch. Drain well. Pat the oysters dry between several sheets of paper towels.
Beat the egg and flour together and spread the breadcrumbs out in a shallow tray. Dip each oyster in the egg mixture, then coat well with the breadcrumbs, pressing them into the oyster’s surface lightly.
Heat the frying oil to 170 C. Put the breaded oysters in, three to four at a time, and fry until golden brown, about three minutes. Drain off the oil. Serve with shredded cabbage, lemon wedges, the sauce of your choice and plain steamed rice.