Earlier today I fell into a conversation with a neighbour about Japanese foods that visitors to the country often struggle with. They will be playing host to an entourage from parts of the US and wanted to know what not to offer them. The standards like 納豆1 were known, but they wanted to know if there was anything else that might not sit well with people more accustomed to North American cuisine. The first thing that came to mind was 仙崎活きイカ, otherwise known as Senjaki live squid.
Imagine, if you will, eating dinner while your dinner watches you, suffocating and writhing in agony the whole time. For a long time this was something I couldn't imagine eating but, after learning of the significance of the dish, my initial revulsion of the idea completely evaporated.
It is no secret that we eat things that are — or recently were — alive. While growing up in Canada, I knew that the meats I ate came from animals, some of which I would see and feed at neighbouring farms. That said, I was quite sheltered in that I've never had to kill a chicken, pig, or cow and prepare the carcass for consumption. Meats came wrapped in styrofoam and plastic. Fish often came breaded in "stick" form. Other foods were dried in boxes. Fruits were in bags. Vegetables came from the garden in the summer and autumn, and from the supermarket the rest of the year. Everything was very clean and neat.
Things in Japan are sometimes a bit different. While a lot of the food we consume here do follow standard western distribution patterns, seafood is generally served intact. A fish is clearly a fish, complete with bones, fins, and a head. Octopus is clearly octopus. Squid is clearly squid. When you go to a good sushi or sashimi restaurant, you see the food being prepared right in front of you. The fish is fresh, cut open, and turned into dinner right in front of you. While the fish is often frozen when it arrives at the restaurant, it's thawed just enough to be sliced and served for that day's dishes. This is a sign of its freshness and quality. It's a sign that you can trust the food your eating will not make you sick2. When a Japanese person wants to do something really nice for someone, be it a guest or anybody else, they might order some live squid for the table to share. People here will say it's a "courtesy", and this is where something often gets lost in translation.
When I hear the word courtesy, I think of politeness, civility, and a degree of respect. I don't think "squirming squid on a plate". However, when you think about the culture around seafood in many Asian countries, this begins to make sense. People can get sick when eating raw fish that is not absolutely fresh, and anyone who has ever had sashimi at a North American restaurant where non-Japanese chefs were in the kitchen can probably attest to having a sore stomach once or twice after eating there. The same can happen here if you go to a "discount" seafood restaurant that is better known for its 75 Yen sushi plates than its quality or flavour. So by ordering live squid that is cut up and served as an entire cephalopod that is so fresh it's still trying to breathe and escape the plate it's dying on, someone is being shown an incredible amount of respect:
You are my guest, and I am treating you to food so fresh you will not get sick.
Wrapped up in the single word of "courtesy" is an unspoken lineage of custom, respect, and deference that stretches back centuries and has origins involving some of the most regarded figures in Japan's long history. Unfortunately, when some people are confronted with Senjaki live squid for the first time, it can be a little difficult to explain the significance of the dish and why it was ordered. Many of my expatriate colleagues have told stories about when they first encountered this dish and their reactions. More often than not the night is derailed after the squid arrives.
My neighbour found this hard to believe.