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    The latest fugu poisoning

    Several times a year, people in Japan die from eating home-prepared fugu, the blowfish prized as a delicacy here. Its neurotoxin, which causes tingling in the limbs, shortness of breath, paralysis (while you’re still alert and helpless), and finally coma and death, is concentrated in the skin, ovaries, and liver. Guess which part of the fish is considered the greatest epicurean treat? The latest case happened last night in Fukuoka. The story is by the book: a man caught a fugu and brought it home to four friends. They added the liver and flesh to the miso soup with which they started dinner; the symptoms began two hours later. The two men (including the fisherman) are in serious condition and, though the article doesn’t say in so many words, will die. The women, who I imagine left most of the liver for the men, are expected to recover. I wonder, though, not having read up on it much, whether people who recover from fugu poisoning suffer necrosis of the flesh the way a lot of people who recover from snakebites do.

    In case you’re wondering how it’s possible to make the liver edible at all, the answer is: you can purge the poison so there’s just enough left to give the mouth a stimulating little tingle if you hold the cleaned organ under running water for a very long time before serving. No, I’m not kidding. One wonders how many people through the centuries died agonized deaths along the trial-and-error path to that discovery.

    By the way, the character compound for fugu is 河豚: “river” + “pig.” The dolphin is called iruka, and written (if you’re being stuffy) as 海豚: “sea” + “pig.” Somewhat more recognizable, to us native speakers of English who were made to memorize Latin and Greek word roots as schoolchildren, is the compound for hippopotamus: 河馬, pronounced kaba and literally meaning, of course, “river” + “horse.”

    Since I was brought up on the Levitical health laws, my parents reared me not to eat pork because pigs were God’s natural vacuum cleaners and were bad for the body, even though people who ate pork often seemed as healthy as everyone else. Clearly, the river pig of Japan makes its deleterious effects known rather more quickly, as one member of last night’s unfortunate dinner party apparently knew: she ate none of the fugu miso soup, and she’s fine.

    4 Responses to “The latest fugu poisoning”

    1. Toren says:

      I ate fugu liver some years ago at a dinner with the head of Tezuka Pro, Mr. Matsutani. Caught quite a buzz from it, but the next day I had the worst headache of my life, and nothing touched it. I tried every headache pill in the book and in doses that the firms would frown upon…and all to no effect. I finally just wrapped my head in hot towels, balanced it very carefully on the table beside the bed, and suffered in silent misery until the banging went away.
      I’ll still eat fugu but others are welcome to the liver.
      “Delicacy,” my ass.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      I’m glad you didn’t end up making the ultimate sacrifice for the honor. I wrote last night that the two comatose men are goners, but now that I think about it, I actually don’t *know* that that’s true. People do suffer poisoning such as you describe, even with the beginnings of paralysis and labored breathing, and make it through after a few days. Apparently, leaving in enough diotoxin to give people that tingly buzz without actually offing them is a delicate balancing act. My understanding is that restaurants portion out pieces of liver very carefully, and they warn diners against eating extra portions from those who don’t want them.
      I’ve only had the flesh and hire-zake (the fins steeped in hot rice wine, as I’m sure you know, if you went to a restaurant at which they served you the whole fish in different dishes). To me, it tasted like very good sashimi, but nothing to write home about. It was better than konowata (salted, fermented sea cucumber intestine, which you may also have had the privilege to sample, Toren), that’s for sure. The translucency was beautiful, though.
      Actually, that’s yet another interesting kanji compound. Sea cucumber is written formally as 海鼠 (namako): “sea” + “rat.” That about sums it up, as far as I’m concerned.

    3. Toren says:

      Yes, the chef brought out the liver and it was doled out to us by him. He then stood by to watch and make sure no one did as you describe.
      Of all the ways I’ve tried fugu, my favorite preparation of it is (heresy!) deep-fried, bones and all. Yum.
      And yes, my years in Japan have seen many a repeat of “gag the gaijin” by my noble hosts. The usual suspects like kusaya and shiokara, plus others whose names I have forgotten…such as ika liver fermented/aged in shoyu (which was actually rather good) and whole swallow chicks skewered and roasted–real yakitori. “Eat the head first,” I was advised helpfully, “and chew the beak well.”

    4. Sean Kinsell says:

      What I find hilarious is the way so many Japanese people express surprise that I like tsukemono or natto. I never say this except among close friends, but my reaction is always, like, “This is a country in which you eat rotten sea urchin roe and live baby octopus, and what worries you is whether I’ll be able to handle the pickled eggplant?”