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Chinese Takeout: The Surprising South Chinese Origins of Sashimi

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Chinese Takeout is a bite-sized, biweekly RADII feature that examines Chinese food from the inside out, by disentangling the (hi)stories behind a single dish or restaurant. Write to us if you have a suggestion or submission.

Located in Guangzhou’s Haizhu district, Yu Jing Wan (渔景湾) is abuzz with diners from 6pm through the wee hours of the morning, thanks in part to its being directly adjacent to one of Guangzhou’s most popular indie music venues, SD Livehouse.

The eatery is famous among locals — and underground music lovers — for its array of classic dishes from Shunde district in the nearby city of Foshan. In particular, diners flock to sample a strain of Cantonese “sashimi” with a surprisingly lengthy history.

Yu Jing Wan (渔景湾)

The Place

According to the manager on duty at the time of our visit, Yu Jing Wan enjoys a long and storied history of about three years. The restaurant specializes in the edibles of Shunde district, an area renowned for being the origin of Cantonese cuisine, with a diverse array of ingredients used to create a seemingly endless onslaught of snacks, mains and desserts.

Yu Jing Wan’s menu is not lacking in localized diversity, although we’re told by a staffer that most people come to indulge in yu sheng (鱼生), otherwise known as “Shunde-style sashimi.”

Traditionally made with one of a variety of local river fish species, the dish consists of ultra-thin slices of raw fish flesh paired with peanut oil, salt ginger and green onions.

You’d be forgiven for believing that the consumption of raw fish in Asia began in Japan — famous worldwide for its sushi and sashimi — but such habits can actually trace their roots back to south China and southeast Asia.

The History

The best guess is that raw fish consumption in Asia first began in southern China before 200 C.E., according to a 2003 article by Chinese gastronomy expert Jacqueline Newman. “Raw fish was considered a delicacy. It was served with ginger and hot spices, with or without rice. All types of raw food and food mixtures, fish included, were specialties,” writes Newman. “Sushi and sashimi consumption first appeared in Japan after raw fish was eaten in China.”

Japanese written records first mention the consumption of pickled fish during the Heian Period (794-1185 CE). But it wasn’t until the 17th century that sushi as we know it today would begin to take shape in Japan, with the addition of rice wine vinegar.

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Now, we know what you’re thinking. How does Shunde sashimi — quite possibly a distant ancestor of modern Japanese sushi — hold up again Japan’s flagship cuisine?

The Dish

“Isn’t eating uncooked freshwater fish inherently dangerous, putting the diner at risk of worms and other parasites?” we ask ourselves as we enter Yu Jing Wan. The answer, it turns out, is yes — it is. In nearby Hong Kong, it’s actually illegal to sell and eat yu sheng, and has been for over three decades.

“When eating the river fish, Shunde locals will ‘chase’ the fish flesh with a shot of strong alcohol like baijiu to kill the worms and parasites,” the middle-aged manager at Yu Jing Wan tells us. (This is, in fact, based on a false premise: based on our research, booze, wasabi and hot sauce do not kill parasites in your stomach.)

The eatery offers at least five species of fish which can be prepared as Shunde sashimi, ranging in price from 25-70RMB (3.50-9.90USD) per 500 grams. Erring on the side of caution, we decide to order a saltwater fish from the menu.

With little prompting the server ushers us into the back of the restaurant, where our aquatic meal is wrangled out of a tank and dropped on a wooden chopping block. A chef deftly descales the fish, cuts it open, and removes two slabs of white flesh from the its carcass.

fish blur Shunde sashimi Guangzhou

The meat is then sliced with surgeon-like precision into thin portions and deposited into four shallow white dishes. When our yu sheng arrives at the table, it comes accompanied with two trays of garnishes to “boss up” the meal.

We decide to take our first bite of yu sheng without any garnishes, and find the flesh largely flavorless, save for a subtle fishy aftertaste. But when adding the “classic” Shunde toppings — green onion, ginger, peanut oil, and salt — the dish takes on a whole new flavor profile, albeit largely dominated by the salt and oil.

After some experimentation, we come up with our preferred blend of flavors, topping a hefty spoonful of raw fish with shredded ginger, lemongrass, a touch of salt, a fine slice of red onion and a single drop of peanut oil. The silky mouthfeel of the fish is perfectly paired with the onion’s light crunch, and the lemongrass and ginger add a dynamic element to the flavor profile.

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So, was it better or worse than Japanese-style sashimi? While we thoroughly enjoyed discovering this surprising strain of “South China sashimi,” we’ll simply say they’re too different to properly compare. Japan can keep its sushi crown, but when in Guangzhou, we recommend adventurous diners definitely try its southern Chinese cousin.

All photos: Robert Palmer

Robert Palmer
    Palmer is a Guangzhou-based journalist and editor who writes about food, culture and history, and regularly covers hard news stories across South China. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, Palmer boasts nearly five years journalism experience in China and has had work published in major Chinese outlets and international publications, such as Diver Magazine.