There is an understanding in numerous cuisines that seafood is better prepared fresh, suggesting that the liveliest catch makes the best dishes: sushi from Japan, lobster and butter from the Mediterranean, and even grilled tuna from the Philippines. But what’s so surprising, and quite recently a reaction magnet on social media is how some people prefer seafood to be so fresh that it’s still wriggling on their plates.
Plenty would recoil at the thought of eating an octopus that’s served with a side of rigor mortis, but some have taken to the idea. Look up live eating videos on YouTube, restaurant menus throughout Asia and America, or even different articles on the subject and you would see that what might make you lose your appetite is someone else’s aperitif.
From delicacy to trend
The partaking of live seafood is not something new. In countries like Korea and Japan it is considered to be a delicacy.
In Japanese cuisine it is called Ikizukuri, which when translated means “prepared alive.” Restaurants have tanks where customers can choose from a wide variety of seafood, like fish, lobster, octopus, and shrimp. The chef then slices the seafood while it is still alive and promptly serves it on a platter. It can be likened to sashimi, but dishes so raw to the point where you could see gills, muscles, and organs still pulsating on the plate—as shown on this video.
Sannajki is Korea’s answer to Ikizukuri; the dish is composed of an octopus chopped alive into small pieces, drizzled with sesame oil, and topped with sesame seeds. It is so popular that there are certain restaurants dedicated to solely serving the exotic dish.
Live eating made its way to the western parts of the world with Noma, a Copanhagen-based restaurant known for its innovative take on Nordic cuisine. Rene Redzepi, Noma’s chef, along with his team serves live shrimp, housed in a jar with ice.
A number of articles published on The Guardian discuss different points of view on the dish. In 2010, writer Lars Eriksen acknowledges the ethical questions that the dish raises, but ultimately enjoyed what was served. While Joe Warwick, who waited tables at the restaurant’s pop-up in Japan in 2015 spoke of this dish—and along with other examples—and how the seafood served is technically killed through a sharp strike on the brain before serving, making it not feel any pain.
In the United States, places like Los Angeles and New York both with a high Japanese and Korean immigrant population has taken to the trend. Plenty have made the trek to these restaurants to see what it is like to eat dishes such as live hotpot lobster, or even shrimp and octopus chopped and served sannajki style.
Pain or no pain?
Live eating has faced its share of criticism, concerned netizens and animal welfare groups such as PETA. The group released a video last year showing a Los Angeles chef preparing a live octopus by slicing only half of its tentacles. The octopus was then left writhing on the table, with the chef waiting for the next order.
While many would argue that the octopus would feel pain regardless of how it is prepared, cephalopod expert Jennifer Mather told PETA that this type of preparation brings the animal a different type of pain.
“The octopus, which you’ve been chopping to pieces, is feeling pain every time you do it. It’s just as painful as if it were a hog, a fish, or a rabbit, if you chopped a rabbit’s leg off piece by piece. So it’s a barbaric thing to do to the animal,” she said, according to an article by Metro.
In another article for Munchies, Mather said, “The octopus has a nervous system which is much more distributed than ours. If you look at us, most of our neurons are in our brain, and for the octopus, three-fifths of its neurons are in its arms.”
This, according to her, debunks the common misconception that invertebrates don’t feel pain unlike vertebrates.
After PETA’s video was released, they quickly put up a petition asking the US government to ban live preparation of seafood. Although the campaign is aimed at people living in the states of New York and California, anyone can sign it.
Live and let live
Live eating is also not without its risks. Aside from the possibility of mercury poisoning and other food related diseases, there is the possibility of choking on a live octopus’ tentacles. In fact, Korea has seen many cases of this happening, with one highly publicized case in 2008.
It’s not all culture and food trend, the practice is currently outlawed in countries like Australia and Germany, but many people argue that the live preparation of seafood is special for its remarkable fresh quality. Some even take on the argument of culture. They say that people have no right to tell other cultures that their practices are wrong.
The idea of eating a live animal may be welcomed with different reactions, plenty would say that it’s cruelty, enthusiasts and cultural partakers would recon it as another good way to eat seafood, but ultimately it should give people some pause.
What should the cost of “good” seafood be? Is it worth the pain that the animal might be feeling? Is it worth the possible health risk?
Illustrations by Kiel Vasquez
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