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Montreal chef Antonio Park with kaimin katsugyo fish

Ask any sushi chef and they'll tell you that eating fresh is a national obsession for the Japanese and practically a spiritual calling for those who dedicate their lives to perfecting raw cuisine. Sushi and sashimi are supposed to taste sweet, the flesh firm and completely odorless. But within minutes of a fish's demise, perfection starts to fade, like the bloom off a rose.

Which is why, in many upscale restaurants in Japan, "fresh-caught" fish is often still alive - gills and open maw flexing - as portions of its body are dissected and assembled on plates right at the dinner table.

But outside of Japan and a few Asian countries, eating wiggling creatures isn't seen as appetizing. So in their quest for raw perfection, fresh-obsessed chefs worldwide - including a handful in Canada - have turned to the next best alternative: needles deftly inserted into live fish to paralyze and render the animal senseless for the voyage to dinner tables around the world.

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It's fishy acupuncture, essentially.

"Freshness is about the search for purity in the taste of the fish," explains Antonio Park, executive chef and co-owner of Kaizen Sushi Bar in Montreal. "You want to taste the maximum flavour from the fish, where the true palate comes from."

Mr. Park and a few chefs in British Columbia import fish from a Japanese company that, in the style of traditional Eastern medicine, places needles into certain species of their catch (the exact points are a closely guarded secret). The technique is called kaimin katsugyo, which translates as "live fish sleeping soundly."

An acupunctured fish first falls into a sort of coma: It is brain-dead but can breathe weakly, and its central nervous functions continue during most of the overnight flight to Canada.

The fish dies in transit after about 12 hours, as oxygen reserves supplied by a saltwater-soaked padded envelope are depleted. But for several hours more, its flesh behaves as if it were still alive, the company says. In essence, the fish has become a zombie, existing in a twilight state between life and death, its normal processes of cellular decomposition arrested by those strategic pinpricks.

The final stop: on the dinner plate at restaurants such as Vancouver's the Sandbar Restaurant, Ajisai Restaurant, Yoshi Japanese Restaurant and several other venues in Richmond and Coquitlam that are turning British Columbia into a hot spot for acupunctured fish.

The birthplace of kaimin katsugyo in Canada is Montreal, however. Mr. Park, a former intern of the elite New York sushi bar Masa, introduced the technique to the country in 2007 (two years after it was invented) while serving as head chef of 357c, a members-only Montreal supper club. Kaizen remains the only restaurant east of British Columbia buying the fish, according to sources.

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Lifting a red snapper from its airmail container, Mr. Park demonstrates his end of the process. A regular carcass would be mushy and limp by now, he says. But when the dead snapper is held sideways by its tail, it hardly bends. Slicing open the abdominal cavity reveals firm organs of the softest pink. The outside flesh remains unbruised and perfect, since the fish was immobilized almost as soon as it was caught, and unable to flop around in its death throes.

Next, Mr. Park sections out the underbelly, a delicacy worth at least $7 for each tiny, tender sliver. The sweetness of it starts at the tongue and seems to fill the mouth, floor to roof, like wine poured slowly to the brim of a glass.

The snapper costs about $41 a kilogram, virtually double that of a regular snapper. But the high cost is worth it, Mr. Park says, to keep the quality of his sashimi high.

At Vancouver's oldest and one of its most decorated sushi bars, Tojo's Restaurant, chef Hidekazu Tojo opts for imports kept "nearly as fresh" as kaimin katsugyo, using "chi-nuki" or strategic bloodletting. Blood decomposes faster than muscles or organs and can destroy meat prematurely, so incisions are made at the gills and tail of a brain-dead specimen while the fish's still-beating heart pumps blood out of its body.

"Chi-nuki has been proven to work and refined over time," Mr. Tojo says. It was created before refrigeration made it possible to transport freshly dead fish throughout Japan without spoilage. But for sending fish abroad, nothing beats kaimin katsugyo, he acknowledges. "It is surely the best."

For Mr. Park, part of the experience of serving fish at its raw best is treating the creatures with utmost dignity. He believes that putting a fish into a trance-like state is more humane than other Japanese preservation methods.

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"The kaimin way is to make them feel no pain, so they don't even realize they are dying," he says. "It's about respect for your ingredients [because]at the same time, you know that by doing that, it's going to be the freshest snapper you've ever eaten."

Ancient techniques

Kaimin katsugyo is only the latest in a veritable arsenal of preservation techniques perfected by the Japanese over centuries.

There's "hiyashi-komi" or cooling fish in ice-water slurry to bring down its core temperature, and "nou-jime" or puncturing the head with a metal hook causing instantaneous brain death (which keeps the rest of the fish's organs functioning, as in kaimin katsugyo).

Chef Takeshi Okada, of Sushi Kaji in Toronto, learned "shinkei nuki" as a young apprentice in Tokyo, though he doesn't use it much any more. The technique consists of shoving a flexible metal wire through a cavity running the length of, and attached to, the fish's spinal cord. Its aim is to remove the nervous system and prevent messages from the brain urging decay from reaching the cells of the flesh.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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