Beneath the Pleasures of Eating Raw Seafood

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Raw seafood is a timeless delicacy that allures anyone with its rawness—even putting multicultural diversity on its knees because of its mouthwatering flavors.

During ancient times, feudal lords demanded their fish served as fresh as possible. Because of distance and transportation limitations, fish had to be carried through various runners and had to travel for hours before arriving at its destination. This tedious process causes the fish to lose its freshness. To combat such dilemma, cooks have experimented with various techniques. Thus, resulting to the creation of one of the most common raw seafood we know today: sushi—a type of fermented fish (or meat) prepared with rice for the purpose of preservation and can be consumed without too much processing.

Contrary to popular belief, sushi did not originate from Japan. Historians believe that the very first written record of the existence of sushi started with China’s Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) where people with only good economic status could eat raw fish and meat along with raw fruits and vegetables. Sushi only appeared in Japan in the Heian Period (794–1185 CE) right after raw fish had officially become a delicacy in China.

Today, hundreds of restaurants, stalls and buffets offer raw seafood as part of their menu. But as the food scene matures and experiences different trends that come and go, consumers have grown from romanticizing what is pleasurable to one’s palette to emphasizing the unobtrusive: is it safe to eat?

“Nutrition-wise, seafoods are rich in protein, omega 3-fatty acids, saturated fat, iron, vitamin B and mineral. The answer as to whether it is safe to eat or not lies on how it is prepared. If the raw seafood has undergone the necessary procedures within the standards of food sanitation and proper preparation, then it would be safe to eat,” explains Kevin Carpio, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.

However, some businesses prefer to take out this criterion to compromise for their lack of resource which is why taking note of the precautions of eating raw seafood is key to safety. Sushi-grade should be in one’s vocabulary when it comes to raw seafood. “Sushi-grade” refers to the highest quality fish that a particular store offers, one that they feel most confident to be served raw. Also, it is best to eat at reputable restaurants who take pride in the quality of their products by getting high quality seafoods from suppliers that flash freeze fish—an accelerated process where fish are frozen immediately. They are caught and harvested to preserve freshness and texture. More importantly, to kill any potential parasites present. However, studies show that the ultimate method to eliminate parasites and microorganisms that have contaminated seafood is not freezing but cooking or heating food at a suitably high temperature.

Each raw seafood dish is a do-or-die gamble in every step of the preparation process. If a dish is mishandled at any part of the course, Kevin stresses that it becomes a life-threatening carrier of severe food-borne illnesses.

“For raw shellfish lovers, it pays to know about Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus. Both of these bacteria can cause gastroenteritis, with symptoms that include severe vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fevers, and chills.”

Roundworms are also infamous in the raw seafood industry. Anisakis simplex is a roundworm parasite found in fish and shellfish. Once the parasite enters the human body, the host will feel a tingling sensation during or after eating the contaminated seafood – a sign which means that the worm is moving in the affected area, usually the mouth or throat. If this parasite reaches the stomach or the small intestine, surgery would be needed. Symptoms of Anisakis penetration include nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and diarrhea.

Liver flukes are no stranger in the parasite- host relationship of eating raw seafood. These flatworm parasites use the livers of infected humans as their main habitat where they feed on blood. Symptoms would include an enlarged liver, gallbladder inflammation, gallstones, bile duct infection and may even lead to liver cancer.

Aside from making one’s body prone as a habitat to parasites, eating raw seafood increases the risk of food poisoning with symptoms including an upset stomach, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, HIV patients, and anyone with a weak immune system should avoid eating raw seafood as they fall under the “high-risk individuals” category and can be considered as easier targets for the aforementioned hazards.

People who take ‘au naturel’ too literally when it comes to consuming raw seafood may expose themselves to higher risks. With all these culinary innovations where sky’s the limit, it is crucial to know the components of what we eat and the risks of doing so. At the end of the day, savoring the pleasure of flavor will always come with a price.

Words by Dang Futalan
Special thanks to Professor Kevin Carpio of University of Santo Tomas
This article was originally published in the April-May 2018 issue of Breakfast Magazine.