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Fugu: the gastronomic Russian Roulette

Puffer, blowfish, swellfish, or, in Japanese, fugu – is perhaps the world’s most deadly fish. However, strangely in Japan, the fugu epitomises gourmet dining.

Fugu is called puffer or swellfish because this fish of reasonable shape balloons into a sphere two or three times larger when frightened, excited, or annoyed, by filling water or air into a sac on its belly so as to discourage predators or intimidate rivals. When it feels safe, puffer expels or air or water, deflating to its normal shape.

In Japan, eating fugu has been the gastronomic version of Russian roulette for centuries. Sometimes a diner still loses the gamble. Fugu ovaries, intestines, and liver are extremely deadly. If even a tiny touch of them is left in the flesh, the gourment dies, often within minutes. About 60 per cent of puffer poisonings prove fatal. It is often the subject of traditional Senryu lament:

Last night he and I ate fugu; Today, I help carry his coffin

It’s a terrible death: even though the victim can think very clearly, his arms and legs become numb. It becomes impossible to sit up. He cannot speak, cannot move, and soon cannot breathe.

Why the Japanese, who venerate hygiene, should make a ritual of eating deadly poisonous fish, is difficult for foreigners to comprehend.

Those who dare the risk of dining on the puffer, prize above all the raw flesh of the tiger fugu. It is customarily sliced very thin and arranged in exquisite patterns of flowers or birds. For this the Japanese will pay as much as $450 for a plate that serves four.

When eating fugu, the diner puts his life in the hands of the chef. Before practicing their risky art, all fugu cooks must be licensed and must take intensive courses, extensive apprenticeship, and even written exams.

Despite this, the fatalities continue. Nearly 100 people a year die from fugu poisoning. A celebrated death occurred in January 1975 : The revered Misugoro Bando VIII – one of Japan’s most gifted Kabuki actors, who had been officially designated by the Japanese government as a “living national treasure” – died of paralysis and convulsions several hours after eating fugu liver in a Kyoto restaurant. Fugu is the sole delicacy which is not permitted to be served to the Japanese emperor.

To eat fugu liver is the height of exotica. It is one of the most poisonous parts of the fish, and techniques for detoxifying it are not dependable. Chefs are prohibited from serving fugu liver, but they sometimes relent under the impassioned pleas of gourmets. Mitsugoro Bando had four servings and paid the ultimate price.

The puffer is one of the most expensive foods in Japan. A single fish can bring $50 to $140. Cut up and served in a restaurant, it can bring $450.

What makes fugu, a dining table version of Russian roullette is tetrodofoxin, a poison which has chemical structure different from everything known so far.

A medium-sized fugu contains tetrodofoxin only one-tenth of an aspirin tablet in weight. But this little amount is enough to kill 30 people.

Despite the danger, the demand for puffers is increasing so fast that the Japanese fisheries are being depleted. Today the Japanese are successfully culturing the fish. Unlike most fish, which are dredged up from the ocean and rushed to the market where they perish on a bed of crushed ice in some Japanese fish market, blowfish are sold live. Fugu are very aggressive and posses sharp teeth, so Japanese fishermen sew their mouths shut to prevent them from killing each other during transportation.

Every year from October through March, millions of diners bet their lives on not getting fatally poisoned. Thanks to strict regulation of restaurants and whole-salers, the number that lose decreases each year. But this droll and preposterous fish with the goggling eyes, swollen belly, and floppy fins remains the world’s most deadly feast. Typical of Japanese, there is a sort of ritual built around fugu consumption. First, the blowfish to be eaten is shown to the diners. Then the chef opens the fish and removes all of its organs, specifically the liver which contains the deadly poison. The fins are then removed and fried, then served in hot sake, known as Fugu Hirezake. Then the skin is removed, and de-spiked with pliers, then placed in a salad known as Yubiki, flavored with a vinegar/soy a dressing called Ponzu. After the skin is removed, the head is cut off and the fish served to the guests. The enigma of the fugu is summed up in the traditional verse:

Those who eat fugu soup are stupid;

But those who don’t eat fugu soup are even more stupid.

Is it not the same thing they say about marriage?

Posted On : March 9 ,2014 0 : 20
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