I manage the Life section of Forbes India, as well as edit articles for the rest of the magazine.
Blood-red strips of raw beef, meant to be eaten as is.
As a child, I was a very fussy eater, questioning all that was placed before me. As an adult, I’d tried everything I’d come across, from a pigs’ organ soup in Singapore, to reindeer meat from Finland. But the first sight of the bowl of raw beef in a restaurant in Seoul triggered something of an existential crisis for me, doubts and emotions clattering in a hollow bowl.
It was a while before I reached for the beef. No matter how much sushi or sashimi I had consumed previously, eating raw meat—especially meat that looked so raw—was not something I had considered seriously.
I picked up a small strip with my chopsticks and placed it gingerly in my mouth. But once my teeth closed in on the meat, every bit of the doubt and anxiety that had gripped me ceased to be. It was delicious. The meat was firm but soft, juicy, tinged with seasoning and served chilled. If I had not known what it was, I would have been hard pressed to make an accurate guess.
Yukhoe, I learnt later, is prepared from the tenderest part of beef. It is stripped of fat, mixed with seasoning—sesame oil, garlic, sugar, salt and other condiments—and often served with a raw egg yolk, although I did not get to taste that variation. It was nothing like any meat I’d ever had.
Yukhoe, to my mind, is an extreme form of raw food because it is meat, not seafood. But that was before I encountered Sannakji, small octopus. Not only is the octopus dished up uncooked, it’s actually alive. Just before it is served, the octopus is chopped into small pieces and seasoned. What makes it particularly challenging is the fact that the small pieces may still be squirming on the plate, and their suction cups may still be functional. I was simply grateful that this was not the case with the plate I was presented: I remember the octopus as chewy, slightly salty, and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Having small suction cups clutching at the inside of my throat is not an experience I want to savour.
But all Korean food, even the raw ones (generically called hoe in the Hangul language), does not lead to such powerful emotional and physical dilemmas. There is, of course, the entire range of local adaptations of sushi and sashimi, made with seafood such as tuna, salmon, prawns, squid and seaweed. There are also dishes where one main ingredient is raw. For instance, Hoedeopbap is a relatively timid dish of rice (bap), raw fish and finely sliced raw vegetables. You might also find a raw egg cracked into your Bibimbap, slowly cooking against the hot sides of the bowl in which it has been served. Incidentally, Bibimbap—plain rice served with toppings including fried mushrooms, spinach and bean sprouts—is perhaps the only Korean main course I came across that can have an authentic vegetarian spin-off. (It is served with a side of seaweed soup, which can be avoided if found to be too smelly.)
Yet another version of raw food (at least when it is served) is Shabu-Shabu, a Japanese import, like many others. A large pot of the soup of your choice is placed on a hot-plate or gas heater in the middle of the table, and kept on a slow boil. You are served your own large plateful of raw vegetables and wafer-thin slices of meat, usually beef, pork or chicken, which you drop into the soup for a few seconds—enough to cook them through—and then eat.
It is common, and not only in India, to associate raw—uncooked and unprocessed—fish or meat with not just foul smells, but health concerns. However, in countries where such cuisine is commonplace, the standards of quality and freshness are highly detailed and differentiated. The cut, freshness and firmness of fish are crucial if it is to be consumed raw. Strict government controls are maintained in Korea to ensure that consumers are aware of the freshness of the meat they are buying from a butcher, or eating in a restaurant. In Japan, government regulations require the trimming of raw beef to remove any contamination on its surface.
The various raw food traditions across the world can be traced to different origins, with reasons as varied as weather, paucity of fresh food, poverty and convenience. For instance, sushi and sashimi began life as fermented fish. To aid preservation, the fish would be stored with cooked, fermenting rice and eaten after the rice had been dusted off. Over time, the rice too began to be eaten with the fish. And then, tastes changed to prefer fresh fish in a bed of rice that had been mixed with vinegar and fermenting wine.