Chicken or Fish?

“Chicken or fish?” asked my flight attendant. I was about to ask what kind of fish, or whether it was wild-caught or farmed, or where it came from, but then I realized these were rather stupid questions to ask a flight attendant, even if she was inordinately pretty and uncommonly accommodating. And that’s saying something, because every Singapore Airlines flight attendant is pretty and accommodating.

“I’ll have the fish, please.” It came with steamed rice and vegetables, cheese and crackers, a side of potato salad and tiny shrimp, a cup of spring water, and a glass of white wine. For airline food, not bad — although every bite reminded me of the scene in Airplane! where incapacitating food poisoning befalls all the passengers who foolishly choose fish. Next time, I told myself, ask for a vegetarian option.

People often ask if I am a vegetarian; I am not. I eat meat on occasion, if it was raised and slaughtered under humane and ecologically-responsible conditions. This usually means I eat meat rarely (no pun) and when I do it is relatively expensive; but it also means every time I eat meat it is a truly delightful experience. For a long time I ate seafood under the misguided assumption that it is more sustainable than land-raised meat. But harvesting seafood can be ecologically devastating, not to mention painful and degrading for the animals themselves, their aquatic companions, and human communities.

It is easy to despair over the exploitation of people, animals, and ecosystems that the hungry stomachs of humankind appear to demand as sacrificial fodder. Yet if we all boycotted every agricultural industry with a bad reputation, we might not starve, but we’d certainly be peckish, probably anemic, and definitely bored. Call me an optimist, but I believe there are better alternatives on the metaphorical table: food that fills our stomachs instead of turning them, food that elicits sighs of satisfaction instead of groans of guilt, food that nourishes the soil and water as well as our bodies and spirits. Fortunately, I have a friend who claims he runs one of the most sustainable aquaculture operations in Southeast Asia. So, dear readers, for the next month I’ll be staying on Sofjan Alisjahbana’s fish farm, Pulau Jukung, in the Pulau Seribu (Thousand Islands) region of Indonesia. If you’re curious, concerned, or just plain hungry, follow me.

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