I know you’re not supposed to play with your food, but in this case, our food seemed to be playing with us. The two squid lying on the pile of ice before us pulsated and changed from a translucent white to a dark red with every heartbeat. Dark pupils jumped around in large eyes. Whenever our chopsticks were in range, a tentacle grabbed hold and almost seemed to be engaging in a playful tug-of-war. Or maybe they simply knew we were about to use those chopsticks to eat them.
We were in Karatsu, a small seaside town in Saga Prefecture near Fukuoka on the Japanese island of Kyushu. The town is famous for its fresh squid and we were there on a day trip to see what the fuss was about. I’d had plenty of raw squid before, but it never made much of an impression. It wasn’t bad; just a bit chewy and tasteless and most other fish simply tasted better. Nevertheless, I had been assured a completely fresh squid would change my outlook and I was looking forward to seeing if freshness actually makes that much of a difference.
We had left Fukuoka early in the morning, hoping to do some sightseeing before sitting down to our famous lunch. After an hour-long train ride, we arrived at Karatsu station and stepped outside into the typical rainy season weather that characterizes June in Japan—a light drizzle falling from a solid gray sky. Apart from the squid, Karatsu is known for its castle (and its pottery, but none of us cared too much about that), so we hiked up a hill to check it out. It was nice enough, but Japan has much more impressive castles.
The view from the hill made the climb worth the effort, though, despite the dreary weather. We were looking down on a small part of the city, sandwiched between the ocean and the Matsuura River, with sandy beaches on both sides. The beaches were completely deserted and the gray water lapping the sand looked entirely unappealing. I’m sure the weather was to blame for much of that, but even on a sunny day, I doubt many people come to Karatsu to swim.
After enjoying the bleak views and snapping a few photos, we headed to the restaurant. Japan is a food-crazed country and it seems every little town has its own specialty and offers a number of food tours for the sole purpose of enjoying that specialty. We were on one of those tours and for a fixed price, we were getting a multi-course meal. The highlight of that meal would be the famous squid.
First things first; we were in Japan, so we had to take part in a time-honored tradition, before we could eat: everyone in our group had to pose for a photo in every possible combination with every other person. Once that was out of the way, we sat down on the floor around the low table and our dining experience began.
Tiny dishes started appearing one after the other, each of them filled with various vegetables and other things, none of them identifiable, all of them delicious and all of them way too small. Of course, given large number of little dishes, the sizes were actually perfect in the end. Then came the moment everyone had been waiting for.
The door to our room slid open and our kimono-clad waitress drifted in holding a large wooden bowl filled to the brim with ice. Two squid lay side-by-side on top of the ice, their tentacles groping the edge of the wooden bowl. Black pupils darting around in clear eyes combined with the rapidly pulsating color shifts of the translucent flesh to give a panicked impression. Panic would be justified, since strips of their bodies had been surgically removed in such a way to keep them alive and then draped over their backs, in a presentation meant to leave no doubt as to the freshness of our meal.
If we’d had any doubts, those would’ve disappeared when our food actually gripped our chopsticks with its tentacles. They were slow, though and easy to avoid, so I picked up a small strip of squid, dipped it in soy sauce and put my mouth. And I haven’t enjoyed raw squid since. Not because it was bad; because it was so incredibly good—crunchy and clean, instead of the chewy texture that characterizes non-living squid—that anything but the freshest squid will simply no longer do. If it’s not moving while I’m eating it, you might as well just fry it up and call it calamari.
Once the strips of flesh covering the mutilated bodies were eaten, which did not take long at all, the remains were taken away, still shifting colors on the way out the door. A short while later, we were served a plate of grilled tentacles and another of deep-fried, tempura style. Those tasted great too, but nothing can compare to the fresh and semi-living squid from before.
I realize that this seemingly barbaric display of freshness might not appeal to everyone (the practice, known as ikizukuri, is actually banned in Germany and Australia) and it probably isn’t all that necessary, but who are we to judge? Any doubts I may have had vanished with the first bite. It’s not often things live up to their hype and after hearing for a week or two before this trip how amazing the squid would be, I was fully prepared for a letdown. Instead, I got one of the most memorable meals of my life. And I got to play with my food.