To read Chef Tachibe's tuna tartare recipe, click here.
Tuna tartare is one of those dishes that acts as a canvas for a chef's culinary sensibilities. Add a little soy and ginger and an Asian-infused flavor emerges. Mango or pineapple yields a gustatory trip to the tropics. At its most basic it is a cooling, relatively light repast, playing off of the smooth, firm texture of the fish, but in smaller, more toothsome bites than other members of the raw-fish pantheon like sushi or carpaccio.
Given these attributes, it is no wonder that tuna tartare is a staple on menus across the country, but it wasn't always so. According to culinary lore, this newer (carnivore-lite) version of the terrifying if sexy beef tartare owes its popularity, if not its precise origins, to one man: Shigefumi Tachibe, a Japanese-born, French-trained chef, who created the dish in a moment of necessity-fueled ingenuity.
The year was 1984, and Tachibe was executive chef at the then-brand-new Chaya Brasserie in Beverly Hills, an American cousin of the almost 400-year-old family of Chaya teahouses and restaurants in Japan, where the young chef had honed his skills.
The brasserie's menu, heavily French with Japanese accents, featured a multi-course prix-fixe menu, of which steak tartare was a key component. When soon after the restaurant's launch a table of six turned up their noses at the raw meat, Tachibe was forced to improvise. "They didn't want meat," he says. "They wanted something different."
So Tachibe ran back into his kitchen, looked around, and serendipity struck. "Beef and tuna look similar," he says of that a-ha moment. "And tuna is a fatty meat like red meat." The chef quickly whipped up a mayonnaise sauce reminiscent of the one used in the beef version, diced the tuna into fine chunks, and tasted. "It tasted pretty good," he recalls. The diners loved their special dish and insisted it be added to the menu.
Others were not immediately certain of the dish's appeal. "It was steak, steak, steak," says Tachibe of his customers' appetites in the early '80s. "People didn't want fish. Sushi wasn't popular." So Tachibe incorporated the tartare into Chaya's prix-fixe, making it a part of the dining experience without forcing it to be a focal point. He says it was not only an effort to introduce the tartare itself, but also a way to educate his Beverly Hills clientele about sushi through the more familiar European dish. Gradually, the tuna tartare gained popularity.
"It makes sense in California," Tachibe says. "It's always hot here, and French is very heavy with all the cream and butter. Japanese is more lightness. More healthy." This made the chef's unique blend of French technique and Japanese ingredients a perfect fit for the area, leading to the creation of a mini-chain of California Chaya restaurants, each serving a version of the dish.
Over time, as diners tended toward healthier dishes, the raw tuna began popping up on menus up and down the state's coast. ("Spago's tartare was more Asian," says Tachibe. "Aqua in San Francisco more Italian.") The chef, whose butcher knife is now housed in the Smithsonian, is modest when it comes to claiming credit for the dish. "Maybe it came from me" is all he'll allow.
And as is the case with many food trends that tap into a cultural zeitgeist, it seems that many chefs were creating fish tartare almost simultaneously, unbeknownst to each other.
An American Express ad that ran in a 1983 issue of New York magazine features a caricature of Chef Michael Fitoussi blustering, "I take pride in pleasing the most discriminating palates, with specialties like ravioli with sweetbreads, tuna tartare, and homemade marzipan ice cream ..." And in 1975, the insatiable Gael Greene mocked those who credited the Parisian seafood restaurant Le Duc for having "invented" tuna tartare and raw salmon. "As if sushi and sashimi had never existed," she wrote.
Though proving the dish's provenance may be impossible, its lasting popularity is undeniable. Especially perfect for the coming summer months, tuna tartare is a relatively quick, impressive appetizer that can be a home cook's best friend. For your own kitchen, here's Tachibe's French take on the dish.