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Friday, February 2, 2018


I have dalliances with religion in this blog, and Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper repeats here and there.

I had fugu (pufferfish, balloon fish) last night and the very good news is I'm alive to report on my meal today.  Actually, very few die from eating this delicacy these days.  Yet, the Emperor of Japan is forbidden to eat fugu (translated to river pig), so there clearly is a perceived danger.  The state of Florida bans fishing for this species and the European Union prohibits it.  Chefs who must train for two to three years are now skilled, and there are 3800 of them Japan.  But a 2-Michelin star restaurant in Tokyo suspended its head chef after a diner almost died.  To quote:

Eating 'fugu' puffer fish is widely viewed as the mealtime equivalent of Russian roulette. The expensive winter delicacy in Japan contains a concentration of anhydrotetrodotoxin 4-epitetrodotoxin in its liver or ovaries that is up to 1,200 times more lethal than cyanide.

The problem was that some idiot lady specifically asked for the liver, and the equally culpable chef tried to clean it up, but failed.  I guess testicles must be okay, or, at least I hope so.  However, in 2009, six men in northern Japan were poisoned when they ate grilled fugu testicles.  

The fish itself does not produce this toxin.  This activity is left to bacteria that colonize certain parts of the host.  There are reports, though, that certain areas under the skin are naturally toxic in certain species.  The operative excitement of danger is the fact that there is no absolute truth to everything about fugu.  There is no antidote if poisoned, but you can be kept alive with a respirator until you recover.   And you should, so if you ever want to not have a premature Last Supper, do it where the attendants know what to do.

Perhaps 30 people still suffer from fugu poisoning/year in Japan, around 7% terminally, or two deaths per year.    Not sure about Korea or China.  However:
  • In the 1950s, 400 people were killed and 31,056 were sickened in one year alone. About 60 percent of people who eat tainted fugu die. Most of the fugu poisonings and deaths are attributed to amateur chefs who try to cut up the fish themselves without undergoing the special training needed to prepare it. 
  • Between 1974 and 1984 over 200 people died of fugu poisoning in Japan, most from intentionally or non intentionally eating the liver from fish prepared at home. 
  • Captain James Cook almost died after he tried a piece of fugu liver in New Caledonia. 
  • In From Russia with Love one villain tried to kill James Bond with puffer fish poison.
  • Traffic fatalities in Japan average 4,000/year, but cars are still allowed.  Incidentally, the death toll was 16,765 in 1970, so conditions have improved.  
  • But back to the fugu, they are now mostly bred in an environment free of this bacteria, so the fear factor is mostly gone.  And this allows you to consume the liver, which is said to be especially delicious.  But would you trust the chef to prepare the right type of fugu?
  • To prepare poisonous fugu a cook must follow 30 prescribed steps. After the poisonous parts have been removed with a hocho knife the fish is cut into pieces and then washed under water to remove the toxins and blood. The poisoned organs are placed in special bags that must be kept under lock and key and disposed of like radioactive waste in a special incinerator.
At one time good chefs left some poison in the servings so that you do get a tingling sensation on your tongue and lips, and a heavy feeling at the back of the neck.  On the other hand:

The famed sushi chef Yutaka Sasaki told the Los Angeles Times that the notion of fugu making a diner's lip number is a fallacy. “That's a lie," he said. “If you're eating fugu and your lips turn numb. You're well on way to being dead.

Back in 1991 when I had my first experience with fugu in Kita-Kyushu, I swear I felt a mild, if not significant, effect.  The story I have is that I ate two testicles because my friend from NOAA refused to eat his.  Most of my visionary thoughts then came soon after this exposure, concepts like the Blue Revolution, Rainbow Pearls and Hawaiian Onsens.  But, perhaps, it was a special form of tetrodotoxin created by these testicular bacteria.  Thus, I today shouldn't expect any improvement in my vision, especially if the restaurant only serves cultivated and safe fugu.

    About 4,500 tons of farmed fugu are produced in Japan annually. They sell for about one fifth the price of wild fugu. You can tell the difference between farmed and wild fugu by tasting the white meat. Farmed fish tastes like sardines and mackerel, the fish they are fed, while wild fish tastes like shrimp and crab, the food on which they feed.
  • Tamao Noguchi of Nagasaki University is raising non-poisonous fugu with the aim of selling the liver, the sale of which has been banned since 1983. In some ways he laments his potential success, telling National Geographic, “a fugu without its poison is like a samurai without his sword."
  • In 2009, Optima Foods, a company in Ehime Prefecture, announced that it successfully bred takifugu to be poison-free on an aqua farm in the middle of the mountains in a pond made of underground mineral water mixed with salt and minerals. Restauranteurs said the fish were bigger than those caught in the sea and the meat tasted much better than other farmed fugus.

In any case, Akari took Tatyana and me to Teraoka, a very good Japanese restaurant that also serves fugu.

We started with fugu sashimi:

A couple more courses of this fish:

Then the

pièce de résistance,  two testicles each:

Note how large these testicles are, considering the small size of the male fish.  If you are so morbid as to ask, the fugu testicles are not close to the tuberous bush cricket, whose testicles are 14% the entire body weight.  The largest belongs to the Right Whale, each weighing in at 1,000 pounds.  Which specie owns the testicle to the left?  Guess.  Man?  Guess.

I doused my first ball in a hot sauce, chewed it and swallowed almost the whole thing.  Very creamy and no fishy taste.  It had the texture of soft cheese.  At this point in the meal I thought about those six in Hokkaido as mentioned above, but that notion quickly passed.

Next was fugu soup prepared at our table:

The next course was dessert, ending with a chazuke assortment:

An absolutely fabulous dinner with great company, and all due to the courtesy of Akari, who will someday be president of Kyushu University.  Yes, my trip to Kyushu University has been memorable, and will be even more monumental if I return with an enhanced vision for Planet Earth and Humanity.  The photo above was one of those less than optimal ones, so I show her again to the left.  I can anticipate a great partnership between the Universities of Kyushu and Hawaii.  Oh, I should add that she obtained her PhD in chemistry from the University of California at Davis, the best wine university in the world.


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