Translating to “pierced body” in Japanese, sashimi is the culinary tradition of eating raw seafood and meat. Some of the most popular sashimi ingredients include tuna, salmon, yellowtail, squid, shrimp, as well as raw beef. Not to be confused with sushi, which is a dish made from raw seafood and vinegared rice, sashimi is served in slices alongside condiments and garnishes. And while the two dishes are distinct, sashimi can be found at most sushi restaurants. In Japan sashimi is usually served as an appetizer, however, it can also be eaten with rice and miso soup as a part of the main course.
While sashimi has been popular in Japan for centuries, the culinary art didn’t make its way to Western countries until the mid-1960s. American food journalist and restaurant critic Craig Claiborne wrote at the time, “New Yorkers seem to take to the raw fish dishes, sashimi and sushi, with almost the same enthusiasm they display for tempura and sukiyaki,” which he referred to as less “far out” Japanese dishes. Today, the tasty tidbits have gained worldwide popularity, with over 4,000 sushi and sashimi restaurants in the US alone.
There are many different theories about the origins of sashimi. What we know for sure, however, is that historically the culinary tradition could only be enjoyed along coastal regions due to the lack of refrigeration. Luckily, Japan consists of hundreds of islands, meaning that fresh seafood was available in many locations. According to one theory, sashimi, as we know it today, draws its roots from a dish of thinly sliced raw fish marinated in seasoned vinegar called namasu, which was a favorite in Japan during the Heian period between the 8th and 12th centuries.
Regardless of its origin, scholars do agree that sashimi became popular in Japan during the Edo period between 1600 and 1867. Sushi came soon later with the invention of nigiri, or a combination of vinegar-seasoned rice with slices of raw fish, which appeared before the start of the 19th century. Different sushi styles were soon developed and sushi restaurants mushroomed in Japan (via Ja Bistro). Meanwhile, America got its first taste of sashimi in the 1960s with the opening of the country’s first sushi restaurant in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles.
Since different seafood features different flavors and textures, not all sashimi is created equal. Probably the most common sashimi dishes are made from tuna and salmon. Japan Guide explains that tuna comes in akami, or the red lean and firm part of the fish, and the more highly-regarded toro, or the pink and more fatty part of the fish. Meanwhile, salmon is usually orange, fatty, and tender. Other popular sashimi is made from sea bream, mackerel, yellowtail, and amberjack.
Aside from fish, shellfish and mollusks are also popular sashimi options. Squid sashimi is made from the mantle rather than tentacles, with the firm and mild-flavored flesh often cut into thin strips. Octopus legs are also often used in sashimi. While these can be served raw, they are sometimes also poached to bring out a slightly sweeter flavor. Shrimp sashimi is usually served without a shell, save for the tail, which is edible. Two other shellfish sashimi choices include scallops and surf clams. Sashimi can also come in the form of salmon roe and sea urchin.
While seafood is synonymous with sashimi, the delicacy is also sometimes made from meat such as beef and chicken. The most commonly used sashimi beef is marbled Wagyu beef. Cut into slices, the beef is praised for its thin ribbons of fat. While not as common, chicken sashimi does exist.
Meat sashimi is sometimes also made from more unusual ingredients such as horse meat, deer, and even sea turtle. The tradition of horse sashimi, which started in Japan during the country’s food shortage in the late 16th century, was revived in the 1960s when horses were being replaced by cars and agricultural machinery. Similar in appearance to tuna, raw deer meat is a firm favorite in certain areas of Japan such as Wakayama. Sea turtle sashimi can only be found on Japan’s Bonin Islands where it is served seasonally.