To bite or not to bite: Food that triggers an ethical dilemma

Mumbai:Modern times have seen a lot of polemics brew over what goes on our plates. With the range of food items consumed by human beings in different parts of the world, the debate becomes a complex one. It is not only about what we eat, but how we select, procure and treat living beings that are dominated to satiate human hunger and taste.

To avoid over-simplification, one might pose the question of who this consumer is. Is it the out-of-luck farmer, grateful to get his hands on a rat/cow/dog (depending on which part of the world he belongs to) before dinner? Is it the food-enthusiast who’s not given serious thought to what goes into his favourite meal? Or is it our latent voracity to feed on a lot more than what’s readily available, or necessary? No surprises, there have been no answers to these questions yet.

Consequently, moving away from the vegetarian versus non-vegetarian debate is a good way of gaining perspective at some dishes that are deviant enough to trigger an ethical dilemma in you, should you find them on your plate.
Beluga caviar
Imagine this – you are in a luxury restaurant, and your plate is set with little grey bubbles of briny, creamy fish roe, courtesy the elusive Beluga Sturgeon, a critically endangered fish from the dark recesses of the Caspian Sea.
The visual could either entice or enrage you, depending on how far you are willing to go for a taste of one of the fanciest food that money can buy. Beluga caviar is known as much for its distinct taste as it is for the controversy surrounding the extraction of the unfertilised eggs. The traditional method of obtaining roe could pass for a slasher movie (especially for the sturgeons); club the fish and cut out its ovaries. The second method involves removing the roe surgically, where the fish is sown up and put back into the water – to be trapped in the same cycle over and over again – if they happen to escape some fatal infections and ovary damage, that is. The more recent method of obtaining no-kill caviar, follows a procedure called ‘stripping’, or massaging the eggs out of a small insertion in the fish’s belly. Although much more sustainable and humane, the method is time-consuming, more expensive, and as of now, few farms employ it. As gastronomes and animal rights activists around the world debate the least-damaging way to obtain caviar, the troubles that we are prepared to undertake to put something exotic on our menu stands proven.
Foie gras
Foie gras, French for fat liver, is exactly that – the fattened liver of a duck or a goose, enlarged through systematic force-feeding, served as a patte or parfait. While traditionally the birds are force-fed corn and fat through a tube inserted into the bird’s mouth and down its esophagus, a process known as ‘gavage’, some newer farms allow natural feeding. Considered high delicacy by the French, the foie gras debate does not hang solely on the ethical quandary about force-feeding – in many cases, these birds are caged up after the first four weeks of their lives. Force-feeding starts when the duck/geese is 8-10 weeks old. During this time, the birds are generally not in a position to perform regular movements like flapping or walking around, due to forced huddling in cages. One argument suggests that the process isn’t necessarily monstrous, as the digestive systems of ducks and geese are built to handle some degree of gorging, (usually before long migratory flights). However, the logic appears feeble in contrast to PETA reports that state “the mortality rates of birds raised for foie gras is 20 times higher than that of birds raised normally…the carcasses show severe tissue damage to the throat muscles.” There is enough evidence of cruelty involved in the process for Australia, Argentina and various European nations to ban production, while some, like India, has banned its import. Now you are free to wonder if it is reasonable to look past this trail of suffering for one buttery bite.
This Filipino dish can be a blow to both your sensibilities and appetite. Balut is – check your gag reflex here – a partially-developed duck embryo, boiled alive and savoured in its shell. It is popular in a number of other Asian countries including Vietnam, Cambodia and China. Depending on what you ask for, your egg (largely relished after 16-20 days of fertilization) can be just a brothy mess with some brownish veins, or an almost fully-formed duck with feathers, beak, feet and other body parts that will not see the light of the day. Often, salt, chili/garlic, lemon and mint leaves are used to make the dish more palatable. Balut is proof that as connoisseurs of different tastes, (this one’s described as a rich, flavourful broth) we are ready to kill and quash the natural possibility of life in the unborn. The fact that the egg-chick is allowed to develop considerably before being served as food does not help the dish’s case. Accusations against the anti-balut camp include that of selective condemnation; after all, if deemed okay to kill and eat a conscious animal, why is slurping on some embryonic fluid so scandalous?
The jury might have a hard time on this one.
Turtle soup
Popular in China, Singapore, other parts of Asia and the US, this dish is straightforward like its name. It is soup made out of turtle meat. Widely voted as appetising, it could pass as an innocent cousin of your belly-warming chicken stew, but for the fact that most turtle species, especially sea turtles, are listed as endangered. Enjoying this delicacy amounts to supporting the poaching of an already-dwindling species. While the more widely used Common Snapping turtle is a freshwater turtle, the endangered Green sea turtle has also been used. Poaching (for flesh, eggs or shell) is only one of the many threats that the turtle population faces today – pollution, global warming, coastal development, boat-strikes, accidental entanglement in fishing gear being some others. It has long been established that sustainable killing for meat is not possible as the existing turtle population finds it difficult to recover quickly from the loss of a fully-grown adult member. With the odds already against them, insisting that these non-interfering water babies be hunted down to add flavour to our broth isn’t many people’s idea of ‘comfort’ food.
Drunken shrimp
While most controversial food items rile up members of the society because of the cruel treatment meted out to the animals before their consumption, this one’s simpler. Here one can take into account the treatment of the creature during consumption, seeing that here the shrimps eaten alive. Considered perfectly normal in certain areas of China, the dish involves stunning of freshwater shrimps with the help of ethanol – to make sure that your dinner does not make one last bid for freedom before you enjoy it. The shrimps are doused in a bowl of liquor, typically Baijiu (a beverage made from grains in China) to render them ‘drunken’, and the so-called delicacy is ready.
Ortolan roast
The Orlotan Bunting is a little songbird native of certain European countries and parts of Western Asia. Sparrow-coloured and weighing barely 20 grams, they are delicate enough to fit into the smallest of human palms. But if some French gourmet chefs would have their way, the 1999 ban on the barbaric, almost ritualistic ‘tradition’ of capturing, blinding, force-feeding, drowning the bird in Armagnac and eating them whole, should be revoked. This elaborate process of gluttony gave birth to an old custom of the diner covering his head with a linen napkin, partly to preserve the hard-found flavours about to be enjoyed, partly to hide from God the sin in doing so. Here’s why. First, the bird, known to nest near the ground, is captured and kept in a small dark space. At this point, the Orlotan is blinded to manipulate its natural feeding cycle, and force-fed to swell to epic proportions. The creature is then drowned in a vat of brandy, serving the purpose of killing and marinating it at one go. Then roasted, the bird is declared ready to be relished, feet first, with the eater holding onto the head.
This one’s trickier to place on the graph than most others on the list. Posu (Konkani), a rich sweet dish popular by different names in parts of the southern and western coasts of India, would seem to be a harmless enough preparation made of colostrum milk of the cow, or the milk of a lactating cow. Typically, it is made from the milk produced by a cow during the first three days of giving birth. The thick, extra-creamy texture of this milk is a taste-enhancer, and this milk is alleged to contain immunity-boosting nutrients. Even though this dish does not entail the sacrifice of another life, the arbitrariness in depriving the newborn of it’s nourishment, whilst banning the commercial slaughter of the same species, is ironic, especially in a land that regards the cow as ‘the holy mother’.
The creature in this Asian dish, namely octopus, is not only alive, but also a baby. A rage in South Korea, Sannakji is sought after as a unique eating experience; after all, not every day do you eat your dinner alive. It is prepared with toasted sesame oil – a simple enough preparation, seeing that it only involves some seasoning and cutting up of the tentacles of the young octopus as they squirm and thrash around on your plate. If that isn’t enough, it also poses the mortal threat of choking, if the tentacles lodge themselves down one’s throat. How’s that for some food for thought?