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Japanese Covet Something Fishy, And Alive, on Their Dinner Plates

April 26, 1991

TOKYO (AP) _ The latest in food rages in Japan is to eat fish live - flounder that flap around on the plate, finger-length eel swallowed raw. And remember, if the shrimp don’t dance, send ’em back.

″The food moves around a lot - that’s the whole idea,″ said Sunao Uehara, a chef at Chunagon, a well-known seafood restaurant in Ginza, one of Tokyo’s most expensive nightspots.

Shrimp, flounder and lobster are by no means the only energetic entrees on the trendy diners’ menu. Other attractions include firefly squid, loaches, sea bream and young yellowtail.

Waiters bring the fish in wiggling, their eyes and mouths moving, then quickly slice open the midsection and gut it, so the fish is ready to eat. Like sushi or sashimi, the slices are dipped in a mixture of soy sauce and horseradish.

Lobster is served belly up, with an incision made along the length of the tail so diners can get at the meat. Small squid and eels are eaten whole.

Shrimp are featured in a dish called ″dance,″ and are expected to do just that.

″We’re packing them in,″ boasted Uehara, who specializes in preparing live lobster.

Though some Japanese express misgivings about eating live food, it is a concept that fits in easily with the emphasis on freshness and au naturel presentation upon which Japanese gastronomy is based.

Toshio Fujii, an X-ray technician from a stretch of Japan’s western coast where discerning seafood eaters are the rule, said he prefers to eat his fish live because ″they don’t come any fresher.″

″My 7-year-old daughter likes them, too,″ he said. ″But eels are kind of gross. I had them in my beer one time. Too many little bones.″

The recent resurgence in the popularity of live food in Japan - practiced for centuries by hungry Japanese fishermen - is part of a larger ″gourmet boom″ fueled by Japan’s ever-growing economy, according to one industry official.

″People have more money to spend on food and are looking for better- tasting, more unusual dishes,″ said Tatsuo Saegusa, spokesman for the Japan Food Service Association, which represents several large restaurant chains. ″The rediscovery of live fish and shrimp is definitely part of that.″

Live fish tend to be expensive. Lobster courses at Chunagon range from a basic $44 meal to the top-of-the-line $120 dinner.

″The expense just makes it all the more appealing,″ said Fujii. ″The more it costs, the better we expect it to taste.″

Saegusa said there are reasons besides trendiness and flavor that account for the popularity of live seafood. ″It’s a performance. It’s like the cook is saying, ’Here, I am giving you a life.‴

A spokesman for the Japan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said the group doesn’t consider the practice to be cruel. ″Eating live fish is part of our unique Japanese culinary culture,″ said the spokesman, who requested anonymity.

″Westerners eat dead fish, we eat them live. It’s just a cultural thing,″ he said. ″We are not being cruel, we want to have the best-tasting fish. If the fish were prepared simply for show, like for TV, we would be very much against that.″

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