Global Gourmet

Fresher Than Raw: Extreme Foodies Savor Fare That's ... ALIVE!

Eat that octopus before it slithers away, call the maggots to your turning cheese, and other moving selections from the living menu.

"Sannakji", is not-yet-dead octopus...
Katja Heise

BERLIN - The octopus is moving around on the plate on its tentacles. The cook swiftly grabs it by its slimy head, pushes a skewer through the tentacles, wraps them around it – and voila, the Korean delicacy known as sannakji, served with chili sauce or a sesame oil and salt dip.

Sannakji means “live octopus,” explains Hwan Nam-kong of Furusato, a Korean restaurant in Berlin, adding that the dish can be found all over Korea.

That the octopus is still moving when served is not a problem. On the contrary: "The fact that it is still alive on the plate is a sign of quality," she says. If the octopus is very large, the tentacles are cut off with scissors right before serving.

But the tentacles are also "alive." They continue to move, and will even wander off if they're not stopped. Andreas Nieder, a professor at the University of Tubingen’s Institute of Neurobiology, explains the mechanism this way: "When parts of an animal are separated from it and continue to move it means that smaller nerve bundles are still intact.” The bundles can carry on in absence of the brain for a while.

However, eating moving tentacles is not without danger: they can fix themselves to the inside of your mouth – or worse your throat – which could lead to suffocation and death. So if you order the dish in Korea make sure to chew well, advises Hwan Nam-kong. In her Berlin establishment, octopus is not served this way for the simple reason that it’s difficult to get live octopus in Germany.

She has heard that Germans believe that eating living things is a form of animal torture. "Every country has its own food culture that should be accepted by other cultures," she says.

German animal protection laws allow such “delicacies” requiring only that all vertebrates be killed without causing them pain. That’s because "we assume that vertebrates can feel certain types of pain, which means they can suffer," explains Professor Nieder. Because octopuses aren’t vertebrates they don’t qualify for this consideration.

Rotten cheese attracts the *meat* course

According to German law, ikizukuri, a Japanese method of preparing fish – a vertebrate – would be illegal in Germany.

Koki Umesaka, a chef at Berlin’s Daruma Japanese restaurant, explains that with ikizukuri, a fish is served with its eyes, gills and mouth still moving. That’s not easy, he says. It requires a special technique, and a very sharp knife. Only very experienced chefs know how to do this, he says.

Ikizukuri - Photo: GNU Free Documentation License

And the point of serving fish alive? Here too it’s a sign of freshness and quality. He tried it on his customers in Berlin, but they didn’t like it.

Less problematic in terms of animal rights, but not necessarily more appetizing to German palates, is the Sardinian cheese specialty known as casu marzu, which is also a living food. Translated, its name means "rotten cheese" referring to the maggots writhing within.

Making casu marzu is simple: take a pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese), remove the rind and then leave it outside, explains Andrea L'Abbate of the eponymous Italian cheese manufacturer in Frankfurt. The cheese fly piophila casei will shortly lay some 500 eggs in it.

Casu marzu cheese - Photo: Shardan

The maggots that emerge from the eggs feast on the cheese, and their microbial metabolic products give it a creamy consistency and powerful smell – and when that happens, the Sardinian delicacy has reached the ready-to-eat stage for humans. Serve with bread and red wine – but make sure to wear glasses to protect your eye, because the maggots leap about.

That’s if you can find the cheese at all – tightened hygiene regulations in Germany now forbid production of casu marzu, says L'Abbate, although there’s a black market for it where it costs double what a normal pecorino would cost. She also warns that diarrhea or vomiting may result from consumption, although another supposed side effect is heightened sexual desire.

A similar side effect is attributed to another living food you can easily find in Germany – oysters. Greek mythology has it that Aphrodite, goddess of love, sprang from an oyster. Famed Italian seducer Casanova is said to have eaten oysters to maximize his staying power, according to Guillaume Boullay of the Austern Restaurant Meerwein in Hamburg.

If you eat raw oysters they have to be alive, otherwise you may get food poisoning, he says. The way to recognize a living oyster is by its shell clamped tightly shut, and the smell of fresh iodine when you pry it open with an oyster knife. You can also tell by the way the oyster inside moves if you touch it with the tip of the knife or squirt lemon juice on it.

There is one common kind of live food that is not a curiosity: live lactic acid bacteria are found in most German refrigerators in products like sour cream and yoghurt. And although this is also a living food, hardly anyone in Germany finds it unappetizing. On the contrary: statistically, every German consumes about 18 kilograms of yogurt per year.

Conclusion? Every cuisine in the world seems to offer live food of some kind – but what’s unappetizing, downright disgusting, or crosses over into animal torture is judged very differently depending on which country you are in.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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