Facing the Face on Your Plate

Last week, we posted a 10 second video on Instagram of a fish sliced open and prepared for sashimi—while it appeared to be gasping for air—and the reactions were swift and varied.

December 10, 2014 ● 3 min read

Last week, we posted a 10 second video on Instagram of a fish sliced open and prepared for sashimi—while it appeared to be gasping for air—and the reactions were swift and varied.

Contributing chefs Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone shared the video of the dish which they had eaten during a recent trip to Japan. Although raw, live sushi isn’t killed before it’s prepared, and it’s probably safe to say that most Americans aren’t accustomed to watching their dinner be slaughtered table-side.

But in the realm of global cuisine, is this sort of preparation really that unusual?

"In Japan and many other countries, we have eaten fish that's just been caught, cleaned and grilled or prepared for sashimi. We have the tradition here in America, also: you go fishing, clean the fish and cook it over a campfire," Doumani says.

Anthony Bourdain has eaten live octopus on TV multiple times: once in Queens, New York and also in Seoul, Korea. So did a Vice Munchies correspondent in a webisode that aired this week.

Live lobster is also a delicacy. Andrew Zimmern tried it at Jewel Bako in New York City. These diners in Singapore jump as their lobster and crab dinner crawl off the plate. And a squid prepared live in Japan still moves in this video, even after its tentacles are severed from the main part of its body—you’ve been warned.

For those of us not used to seeing it, though, it can be shocking. Even disgusting. Afterall, it's easy to forget where our food comes from because it often doesn’t resemble its original form once it reaches our plate. A steak isn’t a whole cow, after all, as Homer Simpson knows quite well.

Comments on our post ranged from, “Gross!!!” and “This is so horrible, I’m sorry but I’m unfollowing” to “ looks good. Let’s go!” and “I would eat that little fucker.” As of Tuesday evening, the post had over 100 likes and the most comments we’ve ever received on an Instagram post.

Some of the most heated comments touched on whether or not fish feel pain and the ethics around eating this type of preparation.

“While it might shock some, Doumani says ‘it is important to note that the fish is not in pain’,” the caption read.

Some users were not happy about this assertion.

“It’s sliced in half and gasping for air! If that isn’t painful…,” wrote @foodnotherstuff.

“How the f do you know the fish is not in pain, not worth my appetite,” wrote @chef_taro.

Fish likely do feel pain but not in the same way that we do.

Lena Gerwick, an associate researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, studied the stress responses in fish during the 1990s. She acknowledges that fish probably perceive pain but “it is hard to know how much they actually realize of the painful experience,” she told Chefs Feed via email, because their nervous system is wired for fight or flight responses.

Basically, what we observe as a fish flopping around and gasping for air is a very different phenomenon from the type of physical pain that we experience as humans.

Doumani stresses that it's important to recognize the whole animal your food came from in order to fully respect what you're eating, whether it's a fish, pig, chicken, or even a cow.

Chef Kim Alter of the Daniel Patterson Group agrees: “Even in the Bay Area, where people think about the farm their food comes from, some people still don't want to realize what they're eating,” she says. “When they see the face, they don't want to deal with it. They don't want to think about the fact it was a pig walking around. If you eat meat, embrace being a meat eater. If thinking about the animal made me uncomfortable, I'd probably be a vegetarian.”

A candid camera-esque prank in Brazil, recently highlighted by the environmental blog Grist, is a bold reminder that our differing feelings about piglets and sausage are quite hypocritical.

There are horrific problems, unsustainable practices and abuses within both factory farming and commercial fishing but should those be conflated with traditional culinary practices and techniques, like live sushi? Weigh in on the comments and tell us what you think.

By Sara Bloomberg