A week before I took my parents to Japan for a holiday, I read a story about how one should think twice before consuming raw seafood because of the risk of parasitic infections. But, like many Hongkongers who’d rather risk being exposed to the bird flu virus than be denied live chickens at the market, my mother and I, both intrepid Singaporeans (my father doesn’t care for raw food of any kind), bravely ventured into sushi dens in Japan to wallow in raw-fish pleasure. Never before had I looked at my sashimi slices so closely prior to eating them.
Raw meats and fish, or kuai (膾), were considered a delicacy in ancient China. They were described in august writings, such as Analects of Confucius and Mencius, in great detail – from the thinness of the slices or strips to the preparation of seasonal sauces (“scallions in spring; mustard seeds in autumn”). By the Qin and Han periods (221BC-AD220), raw meats such as beef, deer and wild boar had become less popular and kuai referred exclusively to thinly sliced raw fish.
By the late imperial period, kuai had all but disappeared from China, except among the Cantonese- and Teochew-speaking inhabitants in the south. The consumption of raw meat and fish by Koreans was probably influenced by ancient Chinese.
Called hoe (pronounced “ho-ay”) in Korean and represented by the same Chinese character as kuai, they are still widely enjoyed by both Koreans and non-Koreans, with yukhoe, a raw beef dish similar to steak tartare, a personal favourite of mine.