Apr 18, 2023

CULTUREThe Highest Form of Culinary Reverence: Ikizukuri

Japan is renowned for one of the world’s greatest culinary traditions. Profound respect for the blessings of elevated cuisine is inherent therein. This means that consuming an animal while still alive represents the ultimate form of dignity and gratitude.

Apr 18, 2023

The practice of ikizukuri – serving live seafood

Abalone, also known as awabi in Japanese, is a type of edible sea snail highly prized for its tender, delicate flesh. Awabi served raw as sashimi or seared is a luxurious, compelling bite that is unforgettable for any seafood fan. But one of the most incredible, often controversial ways of enjoying abalone in Japan is eating it while technically alive, and very much moving.

This concept of ikizukuri (lit. “live creation”) – serving live seafood – is practiced with many marine animals like abalone, shrimp, lobsters and fish. In most cases, the animals are killed moments before being served, when they are still moving or displaying vital signs. In others, tiny shrimp or other sea creatures may also be prepared fully alive and dressed with soy sauce or vinegar-based sauces before they go down the hatch. This practice is considered a form of respect and a delicacy in Japan, showcasing the freshest and most flavorful seafood possible.

The ethical and cultural implications of culinary practices

While many people in Japan believe that the animals are killed humanely in ikizukuri, considering the practice as a form of culinary ritual founded in aesthetic and/or spiritual tradition, others argue that it is unethical to serve animals that are still displaying vital signs.

One philosophy surrounding this practice is the Japanese concept of “wabi sabi,” which values the beauty of imperfection and the impermanence of life. From this perspective, the practice of ikizukuri can be seen as a way to honor and appreciate the life of the seafood, rather than simply viewing it as a commodity for human consumption. With ritual comes veneration.

There are also certain health benefits associated with consuming live seafood. For example, raw fish and shellfish contain enzymes that help to break down the flesh, making it more tender and easier to digest. These enzymes are destroyed if the animal is cooking, so consuming live seafood can actually provide a rare, elevated dining experience. Extra nutritional value? Certainly feasible, depending on who you talk to, and what you choose to eat ikizukuri style.

Ultimate respect but not without controversy

The practice of ikizukuri is not without controversy. Some may be quick to argue that it’s unethical, or cruel and inhumane. There are also concerns about food safety, as the risk of bacterial contamination could be higher when consuming seafood raw or still technically alive. Despite these concerns, ikizukuri remains popular in Japan, particularly among high-end restaurants and seafood connoisseurs. 

If you’re interested in trying this way of enjoying Japanese delicacies, we recommend asking at the establishment you’re visiting about their philosophy regarding respect for the animals consumed, alongside their ethical and food safety standards.

Open mind, full heart, respect for all

The practice of eating live seafood is a longstanding tradition in Japan that is deeply rooted in the country’s culinary culture. While it may be controversial to some, it’s undeniably an art requiring great skill and attention to detail, and is meant to showcase the freshest and most flavorful seafood possible. Japan’s culinary megalomania can certainly be shocking, but it rewards the curious connoisseur greatly.

The cultural taboo and difference in opinion on this aspect of Japanese culture may never fade, especially regarding animal welfare. Sentient organisms consumed for our nourishment deserve utmost respect, and some may argue we should all be comfortable taking the life of the animals or organisms we consume. If we’re not comfortable with it, do we deserve to consume so freely?

Directly addressing how the cycle of death and life in nature supports our livelihood can help foster an even deeper sense of reverence in the culinary world. Whether professional chef, foodie or student of Japanese culinary practice, it’s important to attempt to understand and appreciate Japanese cultural traditions ultimately focused on dignity and thanksgiving.