Gastronomy is an essential element in the culture of the land of the Rising Sun. The cooks themselves show the gestures of their tradition when they have to slaughter animals, through an aesthetic of respect, which externally reveals the esteem they have for every living being. Almost every animal has its own specific technique. For fish it is the Ike Jime method (活け締め).
In other parts of the world, when a fish ends up in a fishing boat’s net it is left to slowly suffocate out of the water. This not only causes a slow agony for the fish, but also contributes to making its meat less tasty due to the stress caused to the animal. In Japan, however, the ancestral practice of ike jime consists in neutralizing the nervous system of the fish, to avoid stress and pain. In this way, the animal dies without contracting its muscles and gives its own flesh, keeping the taste qualities intact. It is an instant and guaranteed death.
In recent times interest has been growing in this fishing technique that focuses on quality rather than quantity, promising more sustainable fishing, less indiscriminate suffering for animals and a better quality of meat.
Fishing nets of ike jime?
As mentioned, in modern fishing techniques, fish is caught in nets and removed from the water. A fish, not being able to breathe out of the water, is therefore simply left to suffocate. However, death by asphyxiation not only causes unnecessary and prolonged suffering for the animal, but also entails a series of negative biochemical effects in cascade. In conjunction with often inadequate cold storage situations, this leads to a worsening of the quality and flavor of the meat, easily identifiable by the bad smell that often comes from the fish.
The ike jime method, on the other hand, is presented as a sustainable fishing method not only because it involves the immediate killing of the fish, but also it entails a smaller catch. Andrew Tsui, president of the Ike Jime Federation said that the “Ike Jime is a multi-series steps of controls and these steps are designed to mitigate all the effects of biochemical reactions”.
These steps involve the immediate killing of every fish. As a matter of fact, every single fish is killed seconds after fishing, with a tool that can penetrate the skull and reach the brain. This kills the animal immediately, avoiding the slow agony of suffocation and the diffusion into the flesh of undesirable substances caused by stress, like lactic acid and cortisol. Through death by cerebral acupuncture, the energy of the muscle, ATP adenosine triphosphate, is preserved and gives umami, the fifth flavor, after salty, sweet, bitter and acid.
The technique is followed by the insertion of a long metal rod along the back of the fish, which blocks the nerve endings, allowing the fish to retain its flavor. Finally, the last step is an incision with a knife behind the gills and on the tail to allow the blood to slowly drain and thus eliminate much of the bacterial load present and prevent the development of stronger flavors. The fish is then kept in a mixture of water and ice which allows to better preserve the quality. The whole process allows the fish to maintain an exceptional and particularly umami taste once on the table.
Sustainability and diffusion of ike Jime fishery
The Ike Jime is a technique that is at least 300 years old. Unlike indiscriminate fishing with nets, it involves the use of hooks. The catch that does not reflect size and quality is thrown back into the sea. Attention to each individual fish makes it a time-consuming and manual labor process. It would be precisely this reason why it is considered a more sustainable fishing method. While it is true that for a commercial activity the low price of fish requires higher fishing volumes, the resistance to adopting the Ike Jime method is often also a purely cultural issue.
In recent years, this ancestral technique has become so famous that it has gone beyond the borders of Japan and it also spread to European restaurants. This slaughtering method has only advantages: it improves the taste, gives a new texture to the meat, makes it possible for the fish to ripen from four days to two weeks and respects the animal. However, it is a refined technique that cannot be applied to industrial and intensive fishing.