Theory Teacher's Blog

Food Innovations 1: Raw Fish

I like to eat. I really, really like to eat, and I also like to cook, and admittedly, I can be a bit of a snob about it. So, recently I’ve been thinking that maybe I should blog about food. Why not? If I can apply theory to literature, movies, politics, and philanthropy, why not also food? I was inspired to do this while I was making lunch yesterday when I experienced the dilemma of eating raw fish that I had bought from a supermarket. 

Before I go on with my story, I have to tell you that even before I lived in Japan I was one of those people who loves raw fish — sushi, ceviche, whatever.  From Korea to Denmark to Mexico, so many cultures have specialty dishes of raw (or almost raw) fish, and I’ve never been disappointed. (Raw beef too, but that’s another story.) So, in my fridge I had a steak of wild tuna that I had just purchased from the supermarket the night before. If I had bought this from a Japanese grocery story, I would feel entirely safe eating it raw with just a little soy sauce and wasabi to season it, but I couldn’t help feel a little nervous since this was from one of those oversized American supermarkets. I wasn’t worried about the quality of the fish, as I know that all deep-sea fish such as tuna is frozen right there on the boat immediately after it’s caught, but I was worried about the quality controls at American supermarkets. 

It was a dilemma. On the one hand, I really love raw tuna and think that cooking it simply ruins the flavor. On the other hand, I didn’t want to get a disease. What to do?

tuna sashimi

My solution was to pour some rice vinegar onto a plate and lay the tuna over it, wait a couple of minutes, and then turn the tuna over so all sides had touched the vinegar. This is basically the principle behind the Latin American dish ceviche as well as the Japanese sasazushi, a kind of sushi invented specifically for regions distant from the ocean. Essentially, the vinegar “cooks” or preserves the fish, and so yesterday I imagined it would kill the germs too. To complement the fish, I also cooked some rice, boiled some edamame, and made a green salad with mixed greens, carrots, and tomatoes. My Japanese-style recipe for salad dressing is simple: rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, black pepper, and sansho (a Japanese spice that has a bit of a lemony flavor and is available at almost all Asian markets), and I don’t think I’m bragging when I say my dressing tastes much, much better than the sugary crap I’ve seen masquerading as “Asian dressing” in many restaurants and cafeterias. The whole lunch took me just 25 minutes to prepare, and it was delicious.

So, that was my culinary innovation. Please don’t sue me if you try this at home and get sick from contaminated fish.  But here of course is the irony. For the sake of this blog, I decided today to look up the chances that I might have done something really stupid yesterday (since, honestly, I don’t really know what I’m talking about here), and found this helpful NY Times article. It turns out the only real danger in eating raw fish is from a parasite called anisakis, which would have been killed when the tuna was frozen on the deep-sea fishing vessel (in contrast to fresh-water and coastal fishes such as salmon, which I would never eat raw except from a real sushi chef.) So, no worries there. But do I trust the supermarket for keeping the fish clean? As you can see from this website here, people are worried about the standards governing where the fish comes from (especially when it’s farmed, fresh-water fish), not the standards governing what happens to it once it gets to the supermarket. Maybe I have nothing to worry about and didn’t need to add the vinegar at all!!! Perhaps my clever innovation based on my desires and fears was all for nothing (though it was tasty, so I’m happy anyway.) Interestingly, the NY Times article notes that although many people in America are worried about getting sick from raw fish, nobody in Japan is, and, all things considered, hardly anyone in any country ever does.

So, what’s the upshot here? Besides observing that our eating habits are in many ways irrational, no matter how scientific we think we are being, what does any of this have to do with theory? Well, one of the famous structuralist anthropologists Claude Levi-Strauss once wrote a book called The Raw and the Cooked. There he argues that in spite of the fact that the human stomach can digest just about anything, human beings feel the need to “socialize” their food. One of the basic ways human beings do this — Levi-Strauss observed across the many cultures he analyzed — is through categories of raw, cooked, and rotten. His basic point is that cooking is just like a language, and like all languages, it has an unconscious structure to it. The basic unconscious structure is our relationship to nature and culture, and our often irrational feelings about food seems to traverse this nature/culture binary.

There seems to be an interesting paradox. One might think that the more cooked (or more socialized) the better, but Levi-Strauss notes that the foods most socially connected to prestige or high status are the foods that are either raw or even partly rotten (e.g., sushi and blue cheese.) And if one looks at the price of these foods, one will notice the same thing. Raw and rotten foods are often more expensive. This suggests that our culinary language is more complex than simple binaries such as raw/cooked, nature/culture, outside/inside, or good/bad. Our cultural attitudes are coordinated complexly along more than just one axis of intepretation.

So, what is the moral here?… There is no moral, silly. Just some good eatin’.

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February 10, 2010 - Posted by | food

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