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Monday, October 25, 2010

Of all the fish in the sea...

There is a traditional saying in Japan: 

Those who eat fugu soup are stupid.
But those who don’t eat fugu soup are also stupid.

One of the most dangerous foods offered for gormandizing anywhere in the world is the Japanese dish, fugu - the meat of the poisonous pufferfish or blowfish.  It is also known in Japan as “teppo”, or gun, a testament to its potential for harm.   It has a long history of consumption in Japan, and mounds of pufferfish bones have been found dating back 2,300 years ago to the Jomon period.  Shimonoseki, a city in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan has the largest wholesale market for fugu.  It also holds a Fugu Festival each February.

Considered the most delicious of fishes, it is also the most feared, as improper preparation can result in death to the diner.  The identification of the poisonous parts, of which the liver and ovaries are but two, has greatly decreased the number of fatalities, but its consumption is still risky.  In 1975, a famous Kabuki actor died after eating some.

There are roughly 100 kinds of fugu in the world, of which 38 are found in Japan.  Fugu has been eaten in China for thousands of years.  Yet in all this time, no antidote has been found for the poison.  The estimated lethal dose for an adult – one to two milligrams – can be placed on a pinhead, and is 1,250 times deadlier than cyanide.  The toxin paralyzes muscles by blocking sodium channels in the nerve tissues, causing death by respiratory arrest.  It has begun to be used in modern neurological research, for in a diluted dose it can be a painkiller for those suffering from rheumatism, neuralgia, or arthritis.

A lot of fugu sold, however, is non-toxic, and many fish farmers are breeding the fish.  It is thought that in the wild, the poisonous fish eat other creatures that have the bacteria responsible for creating the poison.  Since pufferfish move very slowly, the production of poison may be a natural defense against predators.  Farm-grown fish are said to be non-toxic.  The tiger blowfish is the most poisonous of the species.  A pinch of the white powder processed from one adult tiger blowfish, can potentially kill 30 people.

Fugu commands a high price, as the chefs that are licensed to prepare and serve it must complete a two-three year apprenticeship, and then must pass a strict test.  Approximately 30% pass.  Some of these licensed chefs  actually include a tiny amount of the poison in their sashimi, producing a prickly and numbing sensation on the lips and tongue.  These dishes are often served in the shape of a chrysanthemum flower, which in Japanese culture signifies death.  Fugu chefs in the U.S. likewise undergo the same training as in Japan.  

The fugu served in the small number of restaurants that offer it comes from Japan, where it is usually shipped frozen.  Occasionally it is shipped fresh, with the mouths of the fish sewn shut as they have a habit of attacking each other when in close confinement.  Fresh fugu is very expensive. A single frozen  fish can cost from $50-$150, and cut up into serving portions it can bring in $200.  Milt, the roe of the pufferfish, is considered a highly prized delicacy. 

If you feel like playing Russian Roulette with your food, fugu is the way to go.  Plus you get lifetime bragging rights.


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