Yesterday, I was supposed to go and eat lunch at either the infamous coffee ramen joint or Tokyo’s oldest horse stew restaurant with other contributors of MF. Instead, I was called on a family excursion to a different type of interesting cuisine — Banya, a cafeteria next to a local fish market in southern Chiba managed by a fishing union cooperative that has recently gained cult status among gourmet followers. The restaurant, which seated hundreds, was crowded, and for good reason — it was delicious. But the grotesque nature of the meal made me think about the inherent violence in the way food is often served in Japan.
In the West, it’s no secret where meat comes from — animals. Often the beasts are harvested and processed in the same way as agriculture. And there has long been a certain Puritan virtue associated with vegetarianism. As many as 20% of the U.S. population believed to be vegetarian. Yet we rarely see evidence of the kill in our meals. Most meat is well processed. We rarely see evidence that the meat we eat was once alive.
Vegetarian advocates have long said that, if the public was aware of the violence inherent in consuming animal flesh, they would realize that “meat is murder” and more people would be vegetarian. The case of Japan, where there is much violence in food yet low prevelance of vegetarianism, suggest otherwise. In much of Japan’s cuisine, the violent inherent in meat is more obvious, and this is no more so the case than with raw fish. At yesterday’s lunch we had an assortment of freshly slaughtered fish, often prepared ikitsukuri style, freshly slaughtered and with the carcass, sometimes wriglign, on display on the same plates from which we ate. Read more below, but viewer discretion is advised.
First there’s this Ise Ebi, a lobster-esque shrimp, served up with the tail as sashimi.
Even after we finished the meal, the creature’s arms were still clearly twitching:
Once we finished, they took the plate back and turned the shrimp’s head into soup.
Then we’ve got a fish that has been filleted and fried whole.
Then we’ve got a hirame flounder, with its gills still flapping and appearing to be breathing. While it’s common to serve aji, the smaller makerel, in this manner, this was the first time I saw a fish as large as a flounder skewered (still breathing) with its body served before us on a plate.
The cafeteria-style restaurant seated hundreds of people, and at the many surrounding tables I saw similar examples of all types of fish, including wriggling shellfish meat. Together, this was by far the largest display fish served raw still alive and quivering. You can see some truly crazy example here. While the fish fried whole above is clearly different, as is the shrimp head used for soup, but both are in the same theme.
DISCUSSION: What are we to make of this gruesome scene? Japan, despite having one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world, nonetheless has an extraordinary amount of violence in its food (and its comic books). In most modern and western societies, this would be deemed too revolting to witness, let alone see while consuming a meal. When a Japanese chef demonstrated the technique on a Los Angeles television station several years ago, the station received hundreds of angry calls and the chef received death threats.
Even without ikitsukuri , as the fried fish and shrimp head soup show, Japan’s customers basically don’t blink when the carcass of their meal is right in front of them. Personally, I generally find ikitsukuri fun on occasion, and great to entertain visitors to Japan, but the flesh is tougher, and I prefer meat cut from prepared filets to be tastier, as the meat has relaxed and is less tough. But this occasion, where I was literally surrounded by the fish (and where my 1 year old son was clearly freaked out by the squirming shrimp head) left me thinking — is this right? What do readers think of this type of gruesome display?