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We Americans automatically think of both “sashimi” and “crudo” as sliced raw fish, but that’s not exactly right: the Japanese term translates as “pierced body,” while the Italian one simply means “raw.” On paper, they’re as generic as can be. Of course, it’s in practice where all the nuances emerge. A side-by-side look reveals as much about Japanese and Italian cuisines in general as it does about the dishes themselves.
Let’s start with sashimi. We now know that the literal meaning is “cut meat”—but what meat? And how exactly is it prepared? The definition doesn’t specify. And its usage is accordingly broad. Although rarely seen in the States, sashimi of chicken and beef, thinly sliced and (barely) cooked on the outside, are common in Japan. Even cooked seafood, like grilled eel and boiled octopus, is fair game. And as for the cut, sashimi can and does take other shapes besides the usual rectangular slice—cubes and threads, for instance.
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That’s not to deny the Japanese their legendary fealty to precision, especially in the context of a traditional sushi bar. As Shizuo Tsuji writes in Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, “everything related to the preparation of sashimi is done with elaborate care.” For the itamae (sushi chef), that starts with sourcing the freshest in-season fish—and then knowing precisely when and how to serve it. Believe it or not, some species actually benefit from aging, so long as it’s done scrupulously by a seasoned vet. Just ask Yasu Kizaki of Sushi Den, Izakaya Den and Ototo, who will tell you that madai (sea bream), for instance, is best about three days after purchase. When “freshly caught, it’s slightly chewy and has no flavor.” The same goes for hirame (flounder). As “one of the lightest and most delicate fish,” Kizaki explains, flounder requires special consideration for aging: should it be gutted and scaled or deboned completely? Sliced with a takohiki or a yanagi-ba-bocho (both special types of thin-blade knife)? Whatever choices the chef makes to ensure the proper breakdown of enzymes, the goal is to bring out “sweeter and more umami flavors.”
That level of detail says it all. From the knife skills required to master a proper half-inch or even 1/16-inch slice to the painstaking application of soy-based dipping sauces, grated roots (wasabi, ginger, radish), leaves (shiso, chrysanthemum) and other garnishes, showcasing sashimi at its peak is hardly a simple art—it’s a specialist’s hard-earned calling.
By contrast, precision isn’t really the Italians’ thing. Though “crudo” does indeed mean “raw,” a better synonym might be “uncooked”—because in Italy, the adjective primarily refers to salumi that’s been cured rather than cooked (cotto). Various types of salted, air-dried charcuterie (including the ham renowned as prosciutto crudo, the salame called coppa, and beef bresaola) all fall under the rubric of crudo. Of course, fresh raw meat and fish may also be described as carne crudo and pesce crudo, respectively—but then again, if they’re presented in thin slices, they might simply be called carpaccio instead.
Frank Bonanno has long offered such traditional specialties at Luca and Osteria Marco. But outside of the laws that govern salumi production, he says, “for the Italians there really are no rules.” That gives him the “liberty” to, say, turn a typically cooked dish like vitello tonnato—usually braised, chilled veal smothered in a tuna-mayo sauce—into a play on carpaccio, giving it only the briefest of sears to “showcase that beautiful rosy meat,” he says. Still raw at the center and “sliced paper-thin, it just eats like butter. It melts in your mouth.”
While Kelly Whitaker of Basta and Cart-Driver agrees that Italian cuisine is less adamantly “purist” than Japanese from the standpoint of technique, he observes that it too is dictated by the seasons and simplicity. When it comes to raw seafood, “letting the fish be the fish” is his mantra. Rather than merely garnishing it, he opts for “lifting or complementing it” with other seasonal ingredients—three at most—be they fennel pollen with a finishing salt and a great olive oil or Calabrian chiles, makrut-lime espuma, and lime salt.
Of course, should you ever get a chance to “pull abalone off a rock with a butter knife and just eat it,” as Whitaker used to do on the Campanian island of Procida, or try squid “clear as a crystal right out of the sea” as Kizaki recommends, you’ll have a next-level understanding of crudo and sashimi.
Try It: Anything from the “Seasonal Fish” section of the Sushi Den and Izakaya Den menus, such as the needlefish (sayori) and black snapper (kurodai) I recently savored at Izakaya. 1487 S. Pearl St., 303-777-0826; 1487A S. Pearl St., 303-777-0691
The aforementioned vitello tonnato at Luca or red wine-cured, rose petal-like bresaola at Osteria Marco. 711 Grant St., 303-832-6600; 1453 Larimer St., 303-534-5855
Whichever crudo Whitaker is serving at Basta on any given night—it changes all the time. But if he happens to score some geoduck, run don’t walk. 3601 Arapahoe Ave., #D155, Boulder, 303-997-8775