This may seem like an odd question to some, but it appears to still be a common one. If we want to know whether horse meat is served as sashimi, in Japan, we should start with a few basic questions. First, what is sashimi?
Sashimi is usually thought of as raw fish. However, the word really means “pierced body” and refers to a preparation of very thinly sliced raw fish or meat. Is horse meat served as sashimi in Japan? Yes. The Japanese do eat raw horse meat, as well as cooked horse meat.
The Japanese call horse meat Sakuru nikuwhich means “cherry blossom meat” (sakuru means cherry blossom). They named it this because of the intense red or pinkish color of horse meat. It is much redder than beef. According to the book They Eat That?: A Cultural Encyclopedia of Weird and Exotic Food from around the World, Sakuru niku is a specialty of the Kumamoto Prefecture, a place where a large number of horse farms were located, since at least the 1600’s. 1
The eating of horse meat didn’t become very popular, however, until the 1960’s. Since there were more automobiles, there were less need for horses.
Realizing all this, we should also consider the confusion over sashimi versus sushi. Sushi, as you may know, actually refers to the vinegared rice mixture that we associate with it. So, although you might eat sushi with raw fish in it, sashimi is not the same thing as sushi. Of course, sushi might be served with things other than raw fish and yes, raw horse meat is sometimes served as sushi, as well.
When horse meat is sliced thin like sashimi, it is called basashi or umasashi. The basashi is served with soy sauce, shiso leaves, and daikon. It may also be put in a tableside soup called sukiyaki (you may have heard of this), or grilled table-side as yakiniku.
Although we Americans have an aversion to eating any animal kept as pets, not all cultures share this aversion. And, there have been lean times when Americans have eaten horse meat. For instance, during World War II, New Jersey made it legal to sell horse meat for consumption, to make up for the shortage of beef. This allowance was lifted after the war, and horse meat once again was banned. There have been other times as well, even up to the early 1970’s.
Unlike us, however, many countries around the world have traditionally consumed horse meat, and even horse milk. Among them are the French, Belgians, Swedish, and Italians. It is also eaten in parts of South America, Southeast Asia, and China.
As disgusting as this may seem to American sensibilities, horse meat is actually higher in protein than beef, has less fat, and is typically more tender, with a sweeter taste. It is commonly thought that horse meat is always very tough, but this is due to older horses who have been worked extensively, being eaten in tough times. Compared to beef, horse meat is less likely to harbor disease or parasites, so eating it raw, as tartare or as the Japanese do, may even be safer than eating raw beef.
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- Deutsch, Jonathan, and Natalya Murakhver. They Eat That?: A Cultural Encyclopedia of Weird and Exotic Food from around the World. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2012.