WARNING: Video features the slaughter and consumption of animals.
If you were to visit China in the 21st century, you may well stumble across one of the popular speed cooking competitions, where frenetically paced chefs transform live animals into animated culinary oddities: snakes are decapitated then chopped up into inch-long segments, which squirm on the plate several feet away from their freshly-severed heads; Ying Yang fish, their sides deep-fried and coated in sweet and sour sauce are devoured as they stare up, still breathing (if the fish isn’t breathing, naturally the chef is disqualified).
For those of us who are a little squeamish about eating their dinner while it’s still alive, the popular dish Drunken Shrimp might be more palatable. The shrimp are served stunned in baijiu, a distilled white liquor, perhaps to impart a final pleasure to the creature before its untimely demise (although diners run the risk of becoming one of the 22 million people worldwide subjected to the food-borne parasitic infection Paragonimiasis – a fair compromise, from the perspective of the shrimp).
Eating animals before they’re dead is something of a rare – and some might say cruel and sadistic – delicacy. Some Japanese seafood connoisseurs share their Chinese neighbours’ predilection for live animals, eating their fish, lobster or octopus ikizukuri-style, a preparation of sashimi using live seafood, or intoxicating baby shrimps in rice wine to make odori ebi. Koreans might prefer sannakji – raw, live and freshly chopped octopus which literally tries to escape as hungry locals and adventurous tourists attempt to cram the wriggling creatures into their mouths.
In the Western world such practices are often condemned as inhumane or even outlawed altogether, as is the case with ikizukuri in Australia and Germany. Most of us prefer our food to be dead before it reaches the plate, rather than staring at us with a mixture of desperation and horror as we tuck greedily into its flank. It is perhaps ironic, given the techniques used in the West for the mass production of animal food – from factory farms to industrialised slaughterhouses, where animals suffer torturous conditions before being killed en masse – that much of the opprobrium levelled against the approach to fresh meals in East Asia comes from those who live in regions of the world where animals have been reduced to mere commodities controlled by multinational corporations.
Ethical concerns bogged down in the quagmire of cultural relativism aside, few are likely to have any sympathy for the hapless victims squirming in the dish Casu Marzu, a pungent cheese made of sheep’s milk left out in the sun to become infested with maggots, a favourite on the Italian island of Sardinia. As a species it seems we have some way to go before extending our compassion towards insect larvae. A “Prehispanic Snackeria” in San Francisco called Don Bugito specialises in providing customers all their protein and vitamin needs in insect form – this enterprising advocate of “entomophagy” – the human consumption of insects – includes on its menu …read more