March 28, 2011 at 11:27 AM ET
Like a cavewoman, I love raw meat.
I crave the sweet, simple taste of raw flesh. It is unlike cooked meat in texture, flavor and experience. You are just that much closer to the root of the protein when you eat it in its unaltered state.
People in the United States are squeamish about raw meat for reasons including salmonella and trichinosis, but mostly the reaction is, "Ew, that's gross."
But for a nation that eats chicken nuggets and canned cheese, that argument just won't hold.
If the protein is fresh enough, was raised cleanly enough and is prepared well, you have more chance of getting food poisoning from a supermarket tuna sandwich than you do from raw protein.
A couple decades ago, sushi and steak tartare were considered adventurous fare, but today, those are tame compared to offerings like raw chicken, lamb, “live” lobster or the controversial live octopus served at one traditional Korean restaurant.
When push came to shove, could I actually eat a moving animal? There was only one way to find out, so I went on a raw food tour of New York City.
Lamb carpaccio at Morimoto
This is served with shiso buds and a scallion ginger dressing. It looks like a slightly pinker version of beef tartare, is thin, and the only scent is the ginger dressing.
It was great! The carpaccio was so tender that it almost dissolved with the heat of my tongue. The taste itself was sweet and not at all gamey. It had none of the woodsy flavors that lamb so often carries. The shiso buds added a hit of sharpness and vegetal freshness, and the dressing brought out even more of the lamb's sweet undertones.
Our waitress told us that the chef special-orders his lamb from a few Pennsylvania farms to ensure freshness. Though the people who love the lamb dish order it again and again, she said it is a little tough to convince people to try it at first because they are squeamish about raw lamb.
Raw liver and heart at Takashi
Offal refers to any internal organs and/or entrails of an animal including intestines, gizzards, the heart and the liver, and thanks to American chefs like Chris Cosentino, offal has a growing following in the U.S. People all over the world eat this stuff all the time -- think of French pate de foie gras or Scottish haggis. Throughout Asia, intestines and tripe are stewed into spicy soups and sauces. But eating raw marinated liver? That was new for me.
It was fabulous! It had a rich mineral taste with a slippery, gelatinlike texture. The deep flavor melded perfectly with the sweet, salty, nutty marinade. This is something that a true lover of liver will love.
According to the waitress, very few people order the raw liver, and those who do tend to be from Japan, where raw liver is a far more common dish. Now, more people are starting to be adventurous, since the restaurant has been around for a little while and was reviewed by The New Yorker. The restaurant gets deliveries of meat from Dickson's Farmstand and Pat LaFrieda up to three times a week, and if the chef does not like the way a certain cut of meat looks, it simply isn't on the menu.
The beef heart tasted metallic and the texture was spongy. I know that it was fresh — there was no disarming smell. But even with the soy and garlic condiments, it was not my cup of tea.
Live lobster sashimi at Jewel Bako
Have you ever eaten something so raw that its head was still moving?
Jewel Bako is one of the few restaurants in town that offers lobster sashimi. Lobster sashimi is very hard to prepare, since besides the obvious necessity of total freshness, the lobster must be served immediately to avoid the muscles tensing up and toughening. We chose our lobster, and after a fatal meeting with the sushi chef's knife in the kitchen, it was brought to our table.
The only scent was that of the clean, fresh sushi bar we were in, but this was a little tougher to get past, considering that the head was still moving while we were to eat the tail. But the lobster isn’t actually alive – it’s just that the nerve endings are still active. Later, the head is made into a miso soup that releases all the lobster's sweetness and oceanic brine.
Where cooked lobster is creamy, rich and soft, the raw lobster was light and a bit more toothsome. The snappy bite was welcome. This lobster came from San Diego, and there are only about two lobsters ordered per week. This could be because of the hefty $75 price tag, the fact that the lobster must be preordered or the fact that people don't want to eat something while part of the body is still moving.
Chicken sashimi at Yakitori Tori Shin
I won't eat chicken medium rare, and totally raw had never even entered my mind – so I was a little skeeved out by this. But Yakitori Tori Shin's owner and chef assured me that they get their organic chickens daily from a top-secret supplier, and that it is an extremely popular menu item. Most people who order it have eaten it in Japan and miss the taste of home. I figured that if I threw up once out of all the raw stuff I tried, the experiment would still have been a success.
But it turned out that this was the best raw item I tried! I even preferred it to cooked chicken. The meat was lightly seared all the way around the outside, but the inside was completely raw. There was no iodine or "off" smell to the meat, and the taste and texture were similar to tuna sashimi. It was silky-smooth with a clean taste. It had no fattiness or stringy tendons. With the spicy pepper puree and citrus ponzu sauce on the side, it was delicious! I ate the whole thing.
What has my raw journey taught me? Well, for one thing, there are a bunch of things you can eat raw that I never considered, and most of them are served at Japanese restaurants. If you can appreciate the pure taste of meat without a lot of sauces or spices, then these raw dishes are for you.
Now, if you will excuse me, I am off to club a man over the head and drag him back to my cave.
Would you try lobster that was still moving? What's the wildest raw food item you've tried?
Check out Fritos and Foie Gras for more from Sarah Spigelman.