Alive: The Freshest Meat You Can Get!
Traffic rushes past you and pedestrians scramble on foot in the loud and incredibly dense Tokyo city streets. Japan has a culture and language you know little about, but after all, you came here to learn. First thing is first, though — you are so hungry that you smirk to yourself about the idea of eating a zebra as you walk into the nearest building that looks like a restaurant. You have predetermined you’ll take anything they have. As you wander in your eyes adjust to the dim lighting as they graze the space. You quickly realize you entered a seafood restaurant – an incredibly fancy one – immediately recognizable by the entire wall of brilliant saltwater aquariums, each with a colorful variety of sea creatures thriving within. The stark white tablecloths, origami folded napkins, and professional looking staff is an afterthought. Momentarily you pause to debate whether or not your checkbook can handle this place, and then your stomach reminds you that you definitely can.
The hostess greets you politely, but realizes you speak little Japanese. She signals you to the aquariums and says, “Please choose animal” with heavy uncertainty. As you scan the tanks, a baby squid catches your eye, briefly reminding you about the greatest calamari dish you’d ever had back home. You love some good calamari. At a place like this, the chefs probably know how to cook it perfectly, so you make your choice and settle in at a table while you watch the staff catch the baby squid with a net and carry it into the kitchen. Mere moments later, the hostess returns with a tray and sets the dish on your table. In that very instant, you realize in shock that the baby squid is not fried at all, or even cooked — rather, its tentacles squirm around the dish, threatening to wiggle right off the top and onto the table. Upon further observation, the chef has chopped off the top of the squid’s head and spread out the tentacles festively on a steaming heap of house-made glass noodles. After the initial shock passes, you realize how beautifully the dish is presented. The squid is surrounded by freshly steamed seaweed, orange caviar, wasabi, and pickled ginger with various sauces on the side. At this point, you know the squid was never intended to be cooked. Again, a deep, primal hunger takes over, and heck, you’ll try anything once.
In Japan, food served while still alive is referred to as Ikizukuri, and is not only seen as normal, but a true (and expensive) delicacy enjoyed by the Japanese palate. Other countries that line the seas have been known to practice serving live food, including Thailand, China, and the Koreas. However, Japanese chefs take special pride in Ikizukuri, seeing it as an honor and a challenge for only the most masterful sushi chefs. Ikizukuri thrives within Japanese culture because sushi exists as one of Japan’s dietary staples with live sushi being the highest quality available. Despite the disgust and criticism an average Westerner might feel towards eating living animal, the Japanese embrace the practice to the point of normalcy and enjoyment, so they must have a reason. Ikizukuri’s commonality in Japan arose not my appetite, but my curiosity.
Most Ikizukuri dishes feature seafood, often including fish, octopus, shrimp, lobster, eel, and the aforementioned squid. Squid and octopus dishes have gained popularity but are not a great meal to order after having a few drinks because the tentacles have been known to suction to the tongue or throat, risking asphyxiation. Another popular dish in Japan consists of baby shrimp or prawn that get dunked in wine and briefly set on fire in order to marinade and impair the shrimp, but also to minimize jumping from the dish. Popularly known as “dancing shrimp,” the crustaceans remain in a living state until eaten, even after being briefly set on fire. To many Westerners, including me, setting a living shrimp on fire but not killing it until crushing it with your teeth sounds cringe-worthy and relatively unheard of. Many cultures would consider serving these living dishes a form of animal abuse. Part of the culture in the United States revolves around compassion towards living creatures, although animal abuse often resides behind closed doors. Knowing that, some people fight back.
Several organizations in the United States, including the well-known PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), have raised serious concerns about serving live dishes. Organizations like PETA thrive in the United States due to the heavy social stigma towards animal cruelty, with the assumption that every living creature feels pain. In 2010, PETA caught word that a high-end Sacramento restaurant offered a live “dancing prawn” dish. The proper way to eat it was to rip the prawn’s protective shell off in order to splash the creature with fresh lemon juice. The acidity from the lemon caused the prawn to writhe or “dance.” The restaurant removed the dish from their menu after being contacted by a member from PETA. The guilt behind eating live food, even if the freshest seafood sounds delicious, would deter many from ever trying Ikizukuri. Still, the Japanese would heavily disagree with PETA, insisting that the dishes are a high-end meal presented with the honor and skill. In this way, the Japanese culture and Western culture clash in their beliefs. I imagine that if PETA members and Japanese sushi chefs were placed in a room together, both parties would feel like they were being eaten alive.
Alive or not, sushi has spread to be a well-known food all over the world. Sashimi is a style of sushi made from fresh, raw meat, though not still alive. Sushi’s popularity within the United States has become well-enough established to where a sushi lover could easily find sashimi dishes. I have never personally cared for seafood, yet I find it easy to understand a love for fresh, authentic sushi. Nonetheless, it seems odd and foreign to bite into uncooked meat. Historically, however, raw food consumption exists not as a new practice, but one of humanity’s oldest. Meat’s introduction into our ancestral diets caused evolutionary change over thousands of years, resulting in increased intelligence and a bigger brain. Because hunting and eating meat packed hefty nutrition and offered increased amounts of concentrated energy, less time needed to be spent scavenging for seeds, nuts, fruits, and plants. Still debated by the scientific community, the date when cooking was discovered remains guess-work. Harvard Professor Richard Wrangham speculates, “Our ancestors most probably dropped food in fire accidentally. They would have found it was delicious and that set us off on a whole new direction.” To this day, humans remain the only species on earth to ever cook food before consumption. Similar to the Western diet which now consists mainly of cooked food, many cultures stray further and further away from the traditional raw ancestral diets.
Often, we are warned to never eat raw meat, as I have heard numerous times about its capability to make us quite sick. Surprisingly, the human body has no trouble digesting raw meat, much like other carnivorous species on earth to catch and eat their food raw. Dr. Beth Mayer-Davis, Chair of the nutrition department at the University of North Carolina, points out, “Sushi is raw fish and steak tartare is raw steak. Inherently, there’s not a reason that eating raw meat in and of itself would automatically create any problems. What you would need to think about would be contamination in terms of pathogens like E coli or other bacteria. In other words, food poisoning. Food safety is a very big concern here. People can get very very sick. People can, and do, die from food poisoning.” Cooking meat before consumption severely decreases the chances of eating dangerous bacteria and contracting food-borne illnesses because the bacteria cannot survive in the hot conditions. Therefore when it comes to raw meats, contamination risks remain much greater, yet not impossible to avoid. Contamination simply comes down to the way the handler treats the meat after the animal has been butchered, where it then becomes a haven for bacteria, some which are poisonous to the human body. Treated carefully and with respect though, as Japanese chefs do, raw meat consumption rarely has adverse effects.
Viewing Ikizukuri from a nutritional standpoint, one could argue that raw food yields greater benefits for the body, as raw foods allow the body to extract nutrients more easily. All raw food, including Ikizukuri, contains substances called enzymes, which are “complex organic substances that aid tremendously in digestion and absorption of nutrients.” Without enzymes, the body cannot obtain maximum utilization from food. Unfortunately, these essential enzymes cannot survive temperatures above 115 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, cooking food completely voids these very important substances. Enzymes, along with vitamins and minerals, are essential for nearly every cell process within the body, allowing the body to heal and maintain proper balance. Studies have shown that those who eat a diet full of enzymes and raw food get sick less often, because their immune systems are stronger allowing them to more easily ward off infection and inflammation. Michelle Schoffro Cook, author of The Ultimate pH Solution, says, “We still benefit from the non-heat-sensitive nutrients and compounds in the produce, but we force our digestive system to work harder with fewer resources.” Considering the popularity of Ikizukuri and similar raw dishes in Japan, getting a fair helping of enzymes receives little thought, but in the Western culture, enzyme’s importance is often overlooked. I always hear how important vitamins and minerals are, but rarely about the importance of enzymes. Despite the benefits, enzymes are certainly not the sole reason raw sushi remains such a special staple in Japanese culture.
In Japan, sushi chefs will often train for years in order to properly and efficiently serve Ikizukuri dishes. Due to sushi’s vast popularity, Japanese chefs must constantly compete to serve the highest quality sushi possible. In such a competitive market, chefs continuously look for ways to stand out, which is probably a reason why live sushi exists — you get dinner and a show. Serving sushi while the animal remains alive is critical and quite time sensitive since the animal must be cut and served before death. The ability to make the dish properly allows a chef to show their customer how fresh their seafood is, with freshness an imperative trait for any reputable sushi restaurant. One dish that truly shows the mark of a master chef is a living, carved fish served in a decorative manner. The chef carefully chooses a special knife to start cutting into the live fish’s belly, and delicately carves the meat off of the fish into thin, bite-sized square sections to prepare for eating. If the chef makes the cuts properly and precisely, the fish’s organs will remain intact and working as the fish and its meat is placed on the plate for serving along with various elaborate presentations. The goal is to have the fish’s head and eyes still moving after the sushi is placed at the customer’s table, otherwise the chef has failed.
Of course, whether or not you agree with the practice of Ikizukuri is entirely yours to decide, but perhaps after delving further into its cultural background, it becomes easier to understand why this style of food remains so widely accepted in the Japanese culture. I still feel a sense of disgust and guilt when I imagine myself trying Ikizukuri, and animal cruelty remains a large part of that feeling, but honestly, if a sushi lover has ordered sashimi in the United States, there is a good chance the chef used a live fish and cut into its meaty bits before bothering to killing it first, the only difference being that the sushi was served too slowly for the chef to bring out a moving fish head along with it. Animal cruelty exists in most places, but not in a way that is “honorable” by any means, so at least the Japanese have that on us. Furthermore, the tradition of eating raw meat connects us to our ancestral roots in a small sense, since raw meat existed long before cooking. It also can serve as a reminder to the importance of providing proper nutrition to the body. Knowing that humans remain the only species on earth to cook reminds me about all the other animals that eat their live food right after catching it, and then I start to think that maybe, just maybe, the Japanese are not as bizarre as I originally thought.
As you pay your tab (rather expensive as expected), you reflect on your first fine-dining experience in Japan. Of course initially, shock overwhelmed you that the chef had the audacity to serve a moving creature to you in this beautiful restaurant. Then after pouring traditional soy sauce on your squid and biting off a few tentacles, you were shocked in a new way —- shocked at the incredible taste of the freshest seafood you have ever experienced. Now you had a better understanding as to why they served it in a manner that many find controversial. You didn’t want to admit it, but there was something oddly primal about seeing your meal alive right there in front of you before you ate it. You briefly ponder if you would do it again, a thought that makes you feel deeply uncertain and a little uncomfortable. Then it’s back into the busy Japan streets with you, where you know another adventure awaits after the experience you just had. After all, there is so much more to learn about this world, even if it does makes you deeply uncertain and a little uncomfortable.