On the whole, humans like to eat animals that have suffered—be it “humanely,” in state-of-the-art slaughterhouses, or more “traditionally” in sadistic culinary rites.
Examples of the latter abound on every continent, but perhaps none more so than Asia—especially in the vicinity of China.
Here are 10 of the worst.
(Note: if you’re squeamish, you may want to look away – or at least refrain from pressing play on the videos below…)
10. Drunken Shrimp
There are several variations on this dish, but they all involve getting shrimp drunk and cooking them alive. Some chefs soak them in alcohol and set them ablaze, while others let them swim around and “drown” in Shaoxing wine before steaming them alive with vegetables.
As needlessly violent as it sounds, it’s actually pretty reasonable (if you absolutely must eat shrimp). Shellfish are crawling with parasites that rapidly multiply once the host is dead, releasing toxins that may survive cooking. This is why we cook lobsters live. At least the Chinese get shrimp drunk first.
There’s still a hint of sadistic glee to the name, though, which (coincidentally) is phonetically near-identical to the Chinese for “lowest of the low.”
9. Loach Hot Pot
The dojo or loach is, apparently, a “pet-like” fish that can be trained and enjoys being touched. In Japan, it has been a staple of the average working class diet for centuries. Nowadays, it’s popular among tourists too—particularly at the famous Komagata Dojo restaurant in Asakusa, Tokyo. Here, they’re served pre-cooked in a broth atop a charcoal burner alongside a selection of seasonings and green onions. By the time diners finish the cooking process themselves, the dojo are so tender they can be eaten whole—bones and head and all.
Although this loach hot pot is what most Japanese will think of when they hear the words dojo nabe, there’s another, more sadistic preparation to be aware of. Some think it’s a myth—and it may well have originated with the Zipang manga series—but some actually claim to have tried it.
Like the better-known, family-friendly version, the so-called “hell tofu” version is simple. Loaches are placed into a pot of cold water with a block of tofu and gradually brought to the boil; as the water heats up, the fishes burrow into the tofu to escape, only to cook alive inside.
8. Three Squeaks
Supposedly a traditional delicacy of Guangdong (Canton) province, “three squeaks” is a dish of live baby rodents—the pink and hairless kind you see scrambling out of a womb. Diners grab them with chopsticks (squeak #1), dip them in hot sauce (squeak #2), and crunch them between the teeth (squeak #3).
It has to be said that most Chinese are just as appalled by this as anyone else—just as they are by many dishes on this list. But, as video evidence goes to show, it is nevertheless a thing. It’s just unlikely to be “traditional.” Videos of people eating the dish tend to have the feel of a YouTube-style challenge or dare, suggesting that it’s anything but normalized in China. And many videos don’t even show people chewing.
Still, traditions have to start somewhere. Perhaps we’re seeing the birth of a brand new culinary crime that will haunt us for years to come (just as the squeaks, presumably, haunt the diners).
7. Hot Turtle Soup
Hot turtle soup is a traditional dish in various East Asian countries, but it’s controversial for a number of reasons. First, many turtle species are critically endangered. This is partially why turtle soup is now so rare in the US as to be weird (or illegal), but it was once a common dish here too. Second, the consumption of (marine) turtles carries the risk of chelonitoxism, a type of food poisoning associated with coma and organ problems. After all, turtles can absorb a great many contaminants from polluted waters during their potentially decades-long lifespans. And while turtle farming may be a big and booming business in China, so is poaching them from the wild.
But hot turtle soup is also exceedingly cruel. A recipe in The Chinese Cook Book (1917) quickly gets the barbarism out of the way, but it’s plain to see in step one: “Put the live turtles [all three of them]into a cooking-pan of cold water. Bring to a boil slowly.” There’s no mention of the suffering involved (the recipe quickly moves on to frying the meat in “Fun Wine”), but contrary to popular belief about lobster-cooking, starting with cold water doesn’t anesthetize the animals; there’s actually a great deal of pain.
Indeed, one can imagine the turtles attempting to cool down by drinking the water—soon to become its own stock—as it slowly but surely boils alive.
6. Snake’s Heart
Lists like this (if they’re not careful) can give the racist impression that most East Asians are barbaric and bloodthirsty monsters, and that animal cruelty is somehow inherent to their (largely Buddhist) cultures. This certainly seems to be the view taken by Western backpackers who flock to Vietnam’s “traditional” snake restaurants to feast on the hearts and blood of live snakes. But it’s almost a Western invention. In fact, this particular tradition dates back roughly as far as The Beach (2000) with Leonardo Di Caprio. Although it may have some basis in traditional folk medicine, it’s never been a widespread custom—perhaps because it’s disgusting, cruel, and carries the risk of salmonella poisoning. As Nguyen Tam Thanh of Animals Asia points out, “the fact that it survives at all is largely down to the tourist trade.” The Vietnamese generally don’t share the backpackers’ bloodlust.
Le Mat, an “authentic” “Snake Village” conveniently close to Hanoi, is the primary hotspot for the practice. The typical visit goes something like this: Backpacker chooses the size and type of snake they want to torture (from a range that includes critically endangered specimens from the wild); their host slices it lengthwise and exposes the still-beating heart; backpacker pulls it out with their teeth and swallows, then washes it down with a shot of rice wine and freshly drained blood and bile. The rest of the snake is then made into a varied selection of dishes, including snake fillets, spring rolls, stews, and soups, along with crispy snake skin and crushed-bone poppadoms.
5. “Live” Baby Octopus
San-nakji is another dish popularized by a movie (Oldboy, 2003), but in this case it’s actually traditional. In South Korea, people actually eat raw baby octopus tentacles complete with still-functioning suction cups.
Typically (hopefully), octopuses are technically dead when chefs start hacking off their arms, but not always. And when they’re not, these intelligent creatures most definitely feel pain—just as much as any other animal would if you chopped off its limbs piece by piece. In any case, because of their complex, highly distributed nervous systems, with two-thirds of their neurons located in the tentacles, they continue to move and suck even after they’re severed from the brain. That’s all part of the appeal.
Apparently good for the liver and popular as an accompaniment to drinks, san-nakji is traditionally associated with older Korean men. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that drinks are an accompaniment to san-nakji, since they apparently help to keep the suckers from sticking in the throat, causing less cautious diners (roughly six of them every year) to choke to death. Another way to avoid this fate, aside from obsessive chewing, is to eat them with lots of raw garlic—something the suckers are said to “dislike.”
4. Ikizukuri (“Prepared Alive”)
It’s easy to denounce many of the other items on this list as unhygienic, unappetizing, or just plain ugly. But ikizukuri has a certain artistry to it—an elegant aesthetic appeal, not to mention technical mastery, that endears itself easily to gourmands. But it’s still a massive disgrace.
Ikizukuri basically means “prepared alive” in Japanese, which means it’s about as fresh as sashimi can get. After selecting a living, breathing fish from a tank, sushi chefs work rapidly to remove their scales and guts without killing them before splaying the flesh for diners to pluck out with chopsticks. On the plate, fish continue to breathe through their gills, their “spine quivering and tail twitching” in agony as they glare accusingly from a bed of ice.
Crustaceans, octopuses, frogs, and other animals may also be served live in this way, but fish are the most quintessential. “Scientists say that fish don’t feel pain,” claimed one reporter, incorrectly, no doubt clutching at some half-remembered headline. But even she wasn’t entirely convinced, finding herself unable to stomach eye contact with her food before giving up and gulping down sake.
3. Yin-yang Fish
Yin-yang fish is a balancing act of complementary opposites—sweet and sour, hot and cold, life and death—but its sadism goes unchecked. It can be thought of as ikizukuri’s uglier, lazier cousin, consisting of a half-dead carp whose body has been deep-fried in batter while the head remains uncooked. This monstrosity is served, twitching on the plate, with sweet and sour sauce.
The key, according to one restaurant owner, is haste. By ensuring the internal organs are unharmed by the cooking process, and that the head is wrapped in a wet cloth throughout, the fish can reportedly live for upwards of half an hour out of the fryer. That particular restaurant owner has been the subject of heavy criticism, with one customer even calling the police. And although no crime had been committed, since the carp species used wasn’t endangered, the dish was eventually dropped from the menu.
2. Monkey Brains
You may have heard the tale: Monkey pokes its head up through a specially made hole in the table and diners smash its skull before digging out its brains with a spoon. This particular “dish” was featured in the 1978 exploitation “shockumentary” Faces of Death, which may have inspired the dinner scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). But it seems to be a fanciful myth—an urban legend based on a joke by a newspaper columnist in 1948. Its persistence in lists like this one could also be a case of mistranslation. Hóu tóu (monkey head) is better known as lion’s mane, an edible fungus popular in East Asian cuisine, while nao (brain) is said to be another word for tofu.
While Princess Di’s butler claims to have eaten monkey brains from banana leaves once, the circumstances aren’t all that clear. Anyway, even if it was a delicacy once (perhaps even literally just the once), monkeys tend to be protected nowadays—alongside pandas, elephants, tigers, and so on—with penalties for poaching including life imprisonment and death. There’s also the risk of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) to contend with. Eating brains can, ironically, cause dementia, as well as coma and death.
Even so, it’s not unheard of. Footage purporting to be of some Vietnamese youths chopping open a monkey’s skull and scooping its brains into their mouths emerged in 2017 and, unfortunately, it appears to be real.
1. Live Screaming Donkey
Donkey-hide gelatin is highly sought after in China as a remedy for anemia, wrinkles, tumors, and low energy or libido, among other conditions. In fact, demand is so high that donkeys are routinely snatched from villages by organized criminal syndicates.
But donkey meat is a delicacy too, and it’s pricey compared to many other meats. To reassure customers that it’s actually donkey meat they’re getting—and fresh donkey meat at that—vendors are known to bludgeon the animals to death at the side of the road and butcher their meat to order for passing motorists.
Some diners like to stick around, though… allegedly. It’s not exactly a popular dish, but “live screaming donkey” is exactly as it sounds. “Chefs” hogtie and restrain living donkeys while they slice off bits of their flesh, serving them up raw to diners seated nearby. The sound of agonized braying is supposed to be a welcome accompaniment to the meal.
For those who prefer their donkey meat cooked, some chefs are said to peel back the skin and pour boiling water onto the flesh. While there’s not a great deal of evidence to back this up, the torture makes some kind of sense given the high value of donkey hides in China.
At the very least, as with some of the other more dubious entries on this list, it may be a brand new tradition in the making—a myth made real by humanity’s appetite for sadism. If so, there’s bound to be a video at some point.