Ponzu Marinated Tuna Tartar

This is one of my favorites.  All time, never fail, never lets me down, favorite things to make.  I have served this countless times in restaurants, and have had repeat customers order it time and time again.  The flavors are so familiar,  let so Asian, and evoke the great ‘umami’ taste that so many of us strive for.

Our taste buds are simple.  We ‘taste’ 4 things:  sweet, sour, bitter and salt.  This is a scientific fact.  Everything else, the subtleties, the nuances, the true flavors we experience are a derivative of taste and smell.  We can smell thousands of unique aromas, and in combination with the 4 basic tastes, we experience flavor.  And then there is umami.

Umami is regarded by many as a basic taste.  Basic, yes, but describing umami and acknowledging its presence is difficult, if you don’t know what it is.  It lies on the outside of obvious flavor, and can be confused with a mix of sweet and salty.  Umami is savory.  Umami is a savory delicious taste.  It tastes like a rich miso soup, a rich mushroom broth, Chinese food (with msg and salt), soy sauce, Japanese dashi or bonito broths, and certain naturally occurring vegetables, like celery and tomatoes.  Umami’s existence usually requires the assistance of salt to become, but is differentiated through the presence of the ‘delicious’ flavor, that your mouth can detect without the help of your nose.

We use and enjoy umami on an every day basis.  Doritos evoke umami, soy sauce on our food adds umami… It lends itself to Asian dishes very well, so why not take full advantage?  I love sashimi.  I love tuna.  Sashimi grade tuna mixed with sesame, cucumber, shallots, scallions and naturally occurring umami, found in a well made ponzu sauce is delightful.  It’s light, healthy, and bursting with flavor.  Below you will find my recipe for ponzu, which is really a tangy citrus soy sauce, and a Japanese inspired tuna tartar.

This recipe is targeted for your ‘small bites’ needs, to work as an appetizer, canape or mid-course intermezzo.  It’s easy to make, and I hope you like it as much as I do.

Ponzu Marinaded Tuna Tartar

Prep time:  15 min
Cook time:  20 min
Yield:  1 1/2 cup finished product plus extra sauce

For the Ponzu:

1 cup rice wine vinegar
1 cup mirin
1/2 cup sake
2 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp kombu or 1 tsp light brown miso paste
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tbsp yuzu juice or 2 cups orange juice reduced by half

For the Mix:

1/4 Japanese or English cucumber, seeds removed, cut into small dice
1 lb sashimi grade tuna (ahi or bluefin is best), sinew free
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp sambal olek
1 tsp toasted sesame seeds
1/2 shallot, fine chop
1 tbsp scallions, very thinly sliced on a bias
1 tbsp white soy sauce, or about 1/2 tsp sweet sea salt


For the ponzu:

In a small non-reactive sauce pot, begin reducing the rice wine vinegar, mirin, sake and kombu (or miso).  When reduced by 3/4, add the sugar and soy sauce and reduce by about 1/4.  Strain well and let cool. Add the yuzu.  It should be thin, slightly tart and rich in umame flavor.  Reserve.

For the Mix:

Very finely chop the tuna, ensuring that it stays as cold as possible.  Mix the tuna with the cucumber, sesame oil, sesame seeds, sambal olek, shallot and scallions.  Add about 2 tbsp of the ponzu and the white soy.  The white soy adds the necessary salinity; add enough until the mix is delicious.  If you feel it’s accumulating too much liquid, use salt for the final seasoning.

Serve right away on either crispy rice cakes, shrimp cakes or fried wontons.  It’s also excellent as a canape; served with roasted puff pastry squares, toast points, fried taro chips, blinis or Okinawa sweet potato crisps or latkes.

Topping with caviar (inexpensive tobiko) is appropriate.


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