As you probably know, a relatively typical food in Japan is sushi, i.e. raw (or cooked) pieces of fish with rice. Japanese often also omit the rice and have the raw pieces of fish on their own. This is called sashimi.
Consuming raw fish is by no means unique to Japan. For instance, people in Scandinavia have Gravlax – salted raw salmon with dill, white pepper and sugar.
But what I think is rather unique to Japan is that not only do Japanese people have sashimi, they also commonly have tori no sashimi. To you and me, that’s raw chicken.
When I say raw chicken, I really mean raw, uncooked, chicken that has experienced no higher temperatures than that of the typical Japanese summer when the chicken was flapping around (hopefully) in the fields of a free-range farm. See photo of my half eaten plateful below.
If you are European, American or Australian, I know what you are thinking:
‘Are you insane!? You should not have chicken unless it is thoroughly cooked!’
At a young age, us Westerners learn to avoid touching raw chicken or its juices and not to eat chicken unless it’s thoroughly cooked, or maybe more accurately: burned to a crisp. I feel that raw chicken is a bit like spiders, needles, clowns or heights – many people borderline on hysterics/phobia when encountering those.
For instance, me sinking my teeth into an uncooked chicken burger in McDonalds while on holiday in Prague 20 years ago made me storm out of the ‘restaurant’, jump into a taxi, rev back to our hotel and gurgle down half a bottle of Stroh Rum in my room. In case any of you are not familiar with these types of primitive forms of disinfection, my aim was to kill any potential salmonella bugs in my mouth/stomach with the alcohol. I am not quite sure whether or not it worked – you see, I don’t know whether it was the Stroh or salmonella that gave me a horrific headache the following day… In any case, the little anecdote above exemplifies what a typical Westerner’s reaction to raw chicken is (or maybe my reaction is not representative of your typical Westerner… Well, maybe my slight overreaction with the raw chicken is counterbalanced by my lack of fear of spiders, needles, clowns or heights, although, if offered, I wouldn’t turn away a gulp of Stroh even in non-scary situations).
The first time I had tori no sashimi (raw chicken) in Japan, I was as worried as British pigs during Eton boys’ countryside excursions. And so I carefully observed my bodily functions for a couple of days, expecting vomiting, diarrhea, fever, things associated with salmonella – but nothing. That encouraged me to have raw chicken again, and again – and, at least so far, I’ve escaped salmonella.
I don’t know what the exact stats are on salmonella in chicken, say, in England relative to Japan – nor does anyone care, I presume, but my personal experience of tori no sashimi and the fact that it is commonly consumed over here (by all apart from maybe babies and small infants) indicates that salmonella is somehow better managed in Japan than in many other countries.
In conclusion, living in Japan has taught me that raw chicken can be safe to eat, that raw chicken does not necessarily give you salmonella. However, please do not take this as me suggesting that you should head to your nearest Tesco and demolish a packet of uncooked chicken drumsticks in the Tesco foyer (partly because the chances are you would contract salmonella and partly because the Tesco staff would probably report you to local authorities as a health and safety hazard). Instead, if you ever visit Japan, consider trying tori no sashimi. It’s dee-licious and the chances are you will not need to accompany it with Stroh.