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Ikizukuri is a Japanese sashimi dish made with organisms which are still alive, lending a whole new meaning to “fresh fish.” Both inside Japan and outside of it, ikizukuri is controversial, with some people feeling that it is cruel or inhumane, while others argue that it is part of Japan's cultural heritage, and it can be an interesting dining experience. Typically only very high-quality restaurants offer ikizukuri, because it requires a very skilled and well-trained chef.
In Japanese, ikizukuri means “prepared alive,” and there are a number of different types of ikizukuri, such as odori ebo, or “dancing shrimp,” various octopus dishes, and versions made with fish. The dish places a heavy emphasis on fresh flavor, with accompanying sauces typically being very mild so that people can really taste the flavor of the seafood. Ikizukuri may also be served with pickled vegetables such as ginger and seaweed, as well.
The preparation of ikizukuri starts with the selection of the animal to be eaten. Many establishments which offer ikizukuri have a large tank of various choices in the dining room, allowing diners to both meet and pick their meal on the spot, although live fish can also be kept in the kitchen and prepared as requested by diners. After a fish has been selected, the chef quickly catches it, guts it and removes any other inedible parts, and then serves it.
In the case of fish, it is traditional to slice off a few thin pieces of fish and leave the bulk of the fish intact, allowing the diner to clearly see the beating heart and quivering flesh of the fish. Fish ikizukuri can be eaten with chopsticks; more wily creatures like octopi are usually wrapped around chopsticks to make the consumption process easier for the diner, who dips the seafood into a sauce of choice before consuming it.
Animal rights advocates have lodged considerable opposition to ikizukuri, arguing that the organisms involved have nervous systems and the ability to experience both pain and fear. They suggest that while ikizukuri might seem novel and exciting, it is cruel, and should be avoided by compassionate and cultured individuals. Supporters of ikizukuri argue, however, that death is usually quick, and that the muscle twitching seen on the plate is the residual response of the nervous system as it shuts down, rather than the labored movements of a dying animal.