In search of better health, many Americans are adopting their ancestor’s diets. Not their most recent ones – but ancestral humans from the Upper Paleolithic period. An entire genre of lifestyle cookbooks focuses on the hypothetical menu options of our “stone age” relatives. All agree that animal proteins and seafood should take center plate in this “caveman” diet, and processed foods are out. Primal adaptations of the Paleo diet take another step backwards, suggesting meats and fish only be eaten raw.
Recent excavations in Tanzania at Olduvai Gorge unearthed a toddler’s skull marked with lesions. Researchers cite this as evidence of vitamin deficiency anemia from lack of Vitamin B12 (found in meats) and strongly suggests meat-consumption was occurring at least 1.5 millions years ago.
Thankfully, modern “hunter-gatherers” and their clans aren’t racing across the plains searching for a mastodon to bring down for dinner. A highly restrictive diet based on raw meat or seafood wouldn’t be sustainable long term – or healthy – yet we clearly have inherited our ancestor’s appetite for their taste. Cultures around the world have incorporated raw protein dishes into their mainstream diets.
Beyond Fish Sticks
Quite beyond the “tasteless” 40-pound raw meat dress worn by Lady Gaga at the MTV Music Awards, there is something luxurious and exotic about raw animal proteins. After all, they are some of the most expensive foods we can buy. Consider melt-in-your-mouth Kobe beef, carpaccio, Iranian caviar, oysters on the half shell, sashimi (sliced raw fish) and Scandinavian gravlax (lightly cured raw salmon).
Raw proteins often have an earthier side: dried beef jerky, Native American dried pemmican (raw beef and fat) and corned beef heart preserved in brine.
Each country’s raw meat and seafood tradition stems from a different origin, but they have one thing in common – a desire for freshness and quality. Paleo dieters and raw beef aficionados alike favor grass fed, organic beef. In Japan, raw fish for sashimi is exceptionally clean, firm and fresh – even to the point it may still be wiggling on the plate. A caveman’s strong teeth and strong stomach shouldn’t be a prerequisite for “dining-in-the-raw.”
Carpaccio is a sliced raw meat dish created around 1960 in Venice at Harry’s Bar. The owner, Giuseppe Cipriani, named the dish after 15th century Venetian artist Vitorre Carpaccio.
Steak tartare is a French dish of diced, chopped or minced raw beef. In the 19th century, it was known as Steak à l’Américaine. Around this time, German immigrants brought raw, chopped Hamburg-style beef to America. Of Russian origin, the dish evolved into the iconic hamburger we love today.
Poke (poh key) is a Hawaiian staple of raw seafood like tuna, shrimp, crabs, clams, smoked salmon and octopus marinated in a highly seasoned dressing.
Ceviche is a similar South American medley of raw fish, shellfish and vegetables marinated in lemon juice. Poisson Cru is a French Polynesian variation with coconut milk.
Kibbe nayyeh (“raw kibe”), the signature dish of Northern Lebanon, is a pâté-like dish of raw minced lamb, ground bulgur wheat, spices and herbs. It’s served with olive oil, fresh mint leaves, onion and Arabic bread. Similar dishes are served in Armenia (chee kufta) and Turkey (çi köfte).
Kitfo terre from Ethiopia is minced raw beef marinated with spices, chile powder, clarified butter and herbs. It is served with cooked greens, soft cheese and injera, a thin spongy flatbread often used as plate and cutlery; pieces are torn off for scooping up food. Even simpler, tere siga is a primal feast; diners use a sharp knife to remove bite-size-pieces from large beef chunks.
Yukhoe, a Korean classic, is highly seasoned, raw beef cut in julienne strips. It’s a great appetizer topped with a raw egg or can be spooned over mixed rice dishes like bibimbap.
Fish Is A Rare Treat!
The Japanese enjoy raw beef, chicken and even horse meat, but never pork. Tough new restaurant regulations for serving raw beef in Japan went into effect last year after an E. coli outbreak. Raw meat must be heated one centimeter from the surface at 60 degrees C (140 degrees F) for at least two minutes and cooled. The meat can then be trimmed one centimeter from each side. This practice is followed for beef sashimi, beef tataki and steak tartare.
The Japanese have developed top skills for recognizing when fresh fish is at its flavorful best and which kinds can be served raw. Follow their lead; check out what’s being served in local sushi bars. The merits of good sashimi – and good health — depend on quality and freshness. Raw fish should never taste fishy and often has a texture like rare beef.
Sashimi began in ancient Japan as salted fish sandwiched between layers of steamed rice. Organic acids in the fish fermented the rice, which, in turn, flavored the fish. At first, both rice and fish were consumed, but the Japanese came to prefer the taste of unsalted raw fish, which was eventually paired with vinegared sushi rice.
A Raw Deal? – Minimize The Health Risks
Meat and fish are delicious, highly nutritious foods. They often enjoy status as raw delicacies but there can be risks from eating them. The most common issues arise over cross contamination, poor hygiene in preparation and the possibility of pathogens and parasites. Fortunately, the risk of becoming infected from seafood is extremely low, thanks to seafood safely systems required by U.S. FDA Seafood Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point Regulations. Still, it’s important to be knowledgeable and stay informed.
Jason Williams, owner of two Ole Timey Meat Markets in the Columbia area, says that – purchased wisely and properly stored – raw proteins pose little risk. “Use top quality meats in raw dishes like Carpaccio and beef tartare,” he explains. He recommends safe hygiene practices when working with raw foods saying, “It’s critical to keep your workspace clean, cold and sanitary. Wash cutting boards, knives, Kitchen Aid meat grinder parts, utensils and hands in hot soapy water before (and after) cutting meats and seafood for raw consumption.” Jason suggests running the equipment through the sanitizing cycle or hot rinse of the dishwasher. Include your cutting board – but it should be made of polyethylene, not porous wood.
You can also sanitize with a solution of two tablespoons liquid chlorine bleach mixed with a quart of water. This is good for cutting boards, including wood and plastic, which develop ridges from knife wear and harbor bacteria. It’s a good idea to keep separate color-coded cutting boards in the kitchen for seafood and beef.
A big part of safe handling of perishable raw meat and seafood is how they are stored. Jason explains that temperature control is critical. “Refrigeration should be well below 40 degrees F.” He recommends meat be properly cold when cut, held in the refrigerator only one to two hours and eaten cold.
Parasites are not present in all seafood. When they are, freezing is one of the most effective ways to kill them, but it isn’t effective against bacteria and viruses. The USDA recommends blast freezing, usually done on fishing boats to transport fish. “Shellfish and fish for raw consumption must be blast frozen from -35 degrees C or below for 15 hours or be regularly frozen to -20 degrees C or below for seven days. Salting and marinating do not necessarily kill parasites.”
The term “sushi-grade fish” carries no legal weight but indicates high quality fish for raw consumption. (The FDA doesn’t require freezing for tuna.) Otherwise, don’t eat supermarket fish raw and don’t try to freeze never-frozen fish for eating raw. Your freezer isn’t cold enough to kill parasites and, besides, the texture suffers.
Pregnant women, young children and individuals with comprised immune systems should not consume raw fish or shellfish. Cook meat and fish to 145 degrees F to destroy any bacteria or parasites present. It’s best to rely on the good handling practices and knowledge of a trusted fishmonger and a butcher who grinds and cuts meat on the premise. They may be your last, best line of defense.
Additional Tips for Eating Seafood Raw
Wild freshwater fish pose more danger that finfish living in salty waters. Never eat raw lake trout, whitefish, perch and pike.
That said, some ocean fish are prone to parasites, including cod, flounder, grouper, herring and mackerel. Buy properly frozen fish.
“High seas” fish, like tuna, billfish and ophas with high roaming migrations, are generally known to be safe.
Anadromous salmon spend time in oceans and fresh water and can contain parasites; destroy through “blast freezing” or cooking. Numerous cultured fish, including salmon, are generally free of harmful parasites.
On the following pages are recipes for some delicious raw meat and seafood dishes. Please be sure to follow the safe handling recommendations, and prepare them at your own risk.
Carpaccio was originally made with top-quality sirloin, but beef tenderloin is a splendid cut. Ask a butcher to cut the beef into 1/8-inch-thick slices. Or cut meat easily at home by freezing it first until slightly firm. Purists prefer to hand-cut the meat then pound the slices between sheets of plastic wrap to make them thin. Serve the meat with Fresh Herb Sauce or the more traditional Garlic Sauce. Recipes for both are provided, and both are delicious. Add a side salad of fresh baby greens, if desired. Or try the variation with a lightly seared beef.
10 to 12 ounces top-quality beef, fat and
sinews removed, sliced paper-thin
extra virgin olive oil
julienne strips of red onion
julienne strips of red bell pepper
tiny rinsed capers
sea salt and freshly ground pepper, if
Fresh Herb Sauce or Garlic Sauce
With a very sharp knife, slicing machine or mandolin, cut the beef into paper-thin slices. Drizzle platter with a few drops of olive oil. Use a bit of artistic license to arrange meat slices attractively, or divide among individual chilled plates. Drizzle olive oil on top to prevent drying. If not served at once, cover and chill up to two hours. To serve, garnish with Parmigiano shavings, onion, bell pepper, capers and seasoning. Serve with a sauce; drizzle on top of each portion or pass on the side. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Variation: Beef Tataki
Salt and pepper the piece of beef. In a heavy skillet heated with a little olive oil, sear the meat, cooking 3 to 4 minutes on each side for medium-rare. Cook longer, if desired. Let meat rest on the cutting board 10 minutes then slice thinly. Meat can be chilled before it is sliced. Serve with sauce.
Fresh Herb Sauce3 tablespoons sliced fresh basil
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh
1 1/2 teaspoons oregano leaves
1 green onion, trimmed, chopped
1 large garlic clove, smashed, peeled
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup safflower oil
Put ingredients, except oil, in a blender and chop finely. With machine running, drizzle in oil until smooth. Serve at once or refrigerate until serving time. Makes about 3/4 cup.
1 large egg, using Davidson’s Pasteurized
1/2 teaspoon salt
dash or two of white pepper
2 teaspoons grainy Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon sherry wine vinegar
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1 1/3 cup oil (half extra-virgin olive oil ‘
and half safflower oil)
fresh minced herbs of choice (basil or
tarragon or parsley)
heavy cream, as needed
In a large bowl, whisk egg, salt, pepper, mustard, wine vinegar and garlic together until mixture thickens slightly and becomes pale in color. Pour in droplets of oil in a slow, steady stream, while whisking very fast. When mixture has thickened, stir in herbs. If too thick to drizzle over beef, thin with a little cream. Keep refrigerated. Makes about 1 cup.
The secret of this appetizer is to use the finest, freshest beef available. Have the meat prepared by a trusted butcher the day it is to be served or grind the meat at home before serving, using fresh, well-chilled beef. For a flavorful round, choose a tender cut near the rump. Wash the grinding equipment carefully before and after grinding. The meat can also be cut into small 1/4-inch cubes.
1 pound trimmed beef tenderloin, or
round, trimmed of fat, chopped or
cut in small cubes
1 raw yolk, in half shell, using
Davidson’s Pasteurized Eggs
Diced red onion
Hard boiled eggs, whites and yolks
Rinsed capers, chopped
Cornichons or other chopped, tart
Quality, whole, salted canned
Croutons (small crisp toasts) or
buttered rye bread squares
Garlic Sauce or Fresh Herb Sauce
Sea salt or kosher salt
Finely ground black pepper
Mound beef on a large platter. Push the egg in the open shell gently into the top. Arrange the condiments with the croutons around the beef on the platter. Pass the seasonings on the side. Diners should help themselves and top the croutons with small portions of beef. Garnish with condiments; season, to taste. Makes 4 to 5 servings.
Boulettes de Tartare
Mix any condiments into the beef, to taste. Form into small meatballs or patties; sear quickly on all sides in a little olive oil in a hot skillet until rare or to desired degree of doneness. Serve with sauce.