de Vos: A taste to die for
The Friday Report
Akihito has been Japan’s Emperor for 27 years. You’d think the Emperor of Japan could order a fish dinner if they wanted, wouldn’t you? By law, the Emperor cannot be served Japan’s most notable fish entrée, fugu. Fugu is a one-ingredient dinner of raw pufferfish, a delicacy among death-defying gourmands.
Traditional restaurants serve fugu sliced paper-thin, presented as a splayed chrysanthemum in a radiating pattern on the plate. Wealthy connoisseurs pay $400 for a two-ounce serving, so a four-pound pufferfish is worth about $10,000 when shaved and set on the table.
Pufferfish are also called toad fish because they’re decidedly ugly. This is a case of function following form, with the pufferfish’s unnerving ability to abruptly inflate six times normal size. Blown up, the fish bristles with spikes exuding tetrodotoxin, far more lethal venom than found in the deadliest snake. Munch a badly-prepared puffer fish-stick and you’ve got ten minutes to tweet your momma goodbye.
Fugu processors must undergo three years of rigorous training before being licensed in their trade. Fish processed for export to the United States may only be handled by those with ten years of licensed experience. To further reduce the risk, a team of inspectors count all of the excised organs and compare it to the number of processed fish. All counts must match or the entire batch goes in the disposal.
That might seem like a lot of fuss but it’s hard to imagine a successful restaurant model where the patrons die before paying the tab.
One of Japan’s most famous kabuki dancers died after eating four portions of this afterlife delight and Fugu kills about a hundred foodies annually. This could be a cultural difference, but why would anyone eat an ugly poisonous fish when theoretically safe McDonald’s fish sandwiches abound?
The answer lies in the tetrodotoxin. A lot of the drug hastens your reunion with honorable ancestors. A little of the drug induces a dream-like, narcotic euphoria. This, and a laugh at the brush with death, is what fugu aficionados strive for. Trace amounts of tetrodotoxin remain in the most scrupulously cleaned fish.
Fugu has long been recognized as one of the finest delicacies in Japan, if not the world. The deadly dish was celebrated centuries ago by the Edo poets who considered the eating of fugu to be one of life’s most exalting experiences. In the eighteenth century, the poet Issa wrote, “Don’t waste the beauty of Mount Fuji on people who don’t like fugu.” I read that a couple times before deciding it must’ve lost some elegance in translation.
The pufferfish is also found in the Caribbean where the liver is powdered and used by Voodoo priests to create zombies. I know that sounds peculiar, but don’t take my word for it. Watch Bill Pullman struggle with this very same problem in Wes Craven’s classic 1988 horror film, The Serpent and the Rainbow. The movie is a casual take-off of a book by the same name, a scholarly work by ethnobotanist Wade Davis. Davis studied zombies in Haiti and became convinced that Haitian witch doctors use powerful drugs to enslave people to do their bidding. One of those drugs, he claims, comes from the pufferfish.
Okay now, who’s dying to try some tasty fugu?
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