7 hospitalized after eating blowfish testicles

Last night in Tsuruoka, Japan, seven diners ate the wrong part of the blowfish: its balls.

You probably know that fugu (blowfish), like many seafoods, is poisonous if not prepared correctly. According to Japan for the Uninvited, one blowfish has enough tetradotoxin (1200 times deadlier than cyanide) to kill 30 people.

In Japan, chefs must obtain a special license to serve fugu, and the offending restaurant’s chef did not have one. Police official Yoshihito Iwase:

“It’s scary. If you go to a decent-looking restaurant that serves fugu, you would assume a cook has a proper fugu license.”

It is scary. All seven are still in the hospital, and three are in very serious conditions from eating the illicit testicles.

If you happen to be reading this right after the blowfish lunch you just had, be on the lookout for tingling toes and your lips turning blue. I’m serious.

[via Guardian]

Big in Japan: Japanese farmers raise poison-free blowfish

To steal a line from a classic Simpsons episode:

‘Poison. Poison. Poison. Tasty Fish.’

Blowfish or fugu (??)???packs a lethal punch in the form of tetrodotoxin, an extremely potent neurotoxin that paralyzes its victims while they are still conscious. To put things into perspective, this means that you are fully aware as your throat closes, your lungs deflate and you drift slowly into death’s arms.

There is no known cure.

However, Japan is a country of safety and order, so thankfully the majority of deaths occur when untrained people catch and prepare the fish, accidentally poisoning themselves in the process. The most dangerous culprit is the liver, which has been illegal for centuries despite being the tastiest morsel of the blowfish – it is often compared to the highest-quality foie gras (fatty goose liver).

While illegal meals of liver can still be had on the black market, the danger cannot be understated. In 1975, the famous Kabuki actor and ‘Living National Treasure’ Bandou Mitsugorou VIII requested four servings of liver from a fugu chef in Kyoto. Unable to refuse the request of someone of such an elevated stature, the chef served him the livers. He died soon after.

Of course, all of this is set to change now that Japanese fish-farmers have found away to raise non-poisonous blowfish….

According to an article in the New York Times, recent advances in fugu research and farming have led to the production of blowfish that are ‘as harmless as goldfish.’ In fact, the advances are so significant that farmers have even been successful in producing completely poison-free fugu livers.

So, how did they do it?

About eight years ago, Mr. Tamao Noguchi, a marine toxin specialist at Tokyo Healthcare University and a leading fugu expert, concluded a two-decade study demonstrating that fugu could be made poison-free by strictly controlling its feed. While it was once believed that blowfish develop the toxin on their own, in actuality they eat other animals that carry tetrodotoxin-laden bacteria.

Earlier this year, Mr. Noguchi tested more than 7,000 fugu that had been given only feed free of the tetrodotoxin-laden bacteria. His hypothesis was correct – not a single fish was poisonous!

So, will it once again be possible to eat fugu livers in Japan?

Sadly, Mr. Noguchi’s research is being suppressed by powerful interests in the fugu industry, who fear that farm-raised blowfish will jeopardize their monopoly.

“We won’t approve it,” said Mr. Hisashi Matsumura, the president of the Shimonoseki Fugu Association and vice president of the National Fugu Association. “We’re not engaging in this irrelevant discussion.”

Sigh. Looks like thrill-seekers in Japan are going to have wait a bit longer to legally sample fugu liver. Of course, there are certain places in Japan where you can get your fingers on some fugu liver, though be sure that your affairs are in order before you dig in!

** All images are screenshots from the classic Simpsons episode One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish. The show, which first aired January 24, 1991, was the 11th episode of season 2 **

Blowfish sold as salmon kills 15, sickens over a hundred

As a frightening aside to my Big in Japan column on the subtle art of eating blowfish, MSNBC reported today that over the last three years, fugu meat that has been passed off as salmon in Thai markets has resulted in 15 deaths and over a hundred cases of food-poisoning.

As a result of a nationwide ban in Thailand on the selling of blowfish meat, some rather unscrupulous fishermen have taken to the practice of dying fugu and passing it off as salmon. The issue was brought to light following a report issued by Dr. Narin Hiransuthikul at Bangkok’s Chulalonkorn University Hospital.

As a warning to anyone travelling in Thailand, it’s probably best to skip on the salmon spring rolls!

** Photo by Flickr user Howdy, I’m H. Michael Karshis **

Big in Japan: The Subtle Art of Eating Blowfish (Part III)

This is the third and final installment in a three-part series on the subtle art of eating blowfish. If you’re new to the feature column ‘Big in Japan,’ be sure to check out Part I and Part II before reading below.

Still hungry for blowfish? Thought you might be.

Much like choosing a good pizza joint or a romantic spot to sip a cocktail, your fugu experience can vary depending on the restaurant. Excellent fugu will have you begging for a second plate. Poor fugu will have you gasping for your last breath.

Truth be told, most fugu-eating takes place at specialty restaurants, which are fairly easy to identify even in the urban jungle that is Japan.

(Case in point – you don’t have to speak Japanese to find this popular spot in Shibuya).

How do you know that a restaurant is serving fresh fugu? Simple.

Blowfish are kept alive in large aquariums prior to serving. If you ask politely, a chef will sometimes let you choose your fish, and then slice it up in front of you with a fugu-hiki (literally fugu-pulling; ふぐ引き), a specially designated knife that is only used for filleting blowfish. Think it’s annoying when someone leaves peanut butter on your butter knife? How about a splash of neurotoxin on your steak knife.

If you really want to sample the full culinary spectrum of fugu, you’re going to have to spend between ¥10,000 and ¥25,000 (US$80 to US$200). The centerpiece of this meal is fugu sashimi, which is usually extremely thinly sliced, and arranged in a decorative pattern on a porcelain plate. Although first-time consumers of fugu are surprised to discover that blowfish is rather tasteless compared to fish such as tuna or salmon, aficionados focus on the delicate texture and the elegant presentation.

Of course, a good fugu chef will dress up the dish with homemade soy sauce as well as a small dab of freshly grated wasabi to cleanse the palete and clear the sinuses. A great fugu chef will dress up the dish with a citrus-accented ponzu dipping sauce as well as a small dab of poison to numb the palette and clear the mind.

Accompaniments to fugu sashimi include a variety of blowfish organs and parts that you probably didn’t think were edible. Blowfish fins can be flash-fried in hot sesame oil, and then served in a carafe of hot sake. Blowfish skin can de-spiked, crisped over a hot flame and then sprinkled over a fresh salad of white radish and cucumber. Blowfish testicles can be eaten like grapes – although it’s something of an acquired taste, the flavor is reminiscent of salty milk. Delicious.

Well, that brings us to the end of the three-part series on the subtle art of eating blowfish. If I haven’t yet been able to get your mouth watering and your stomach growling, stay tuned as I’ve only just begun to unlock the vast treasure trove of Japanese cuisine.

** Special thanks to Flickr user schorschi_san for snapping the shot of the fugu restaurant near my apartment **

Big in Japan: The Subtle Art of Eating Blowfish (Part II)

This is a continuation of yesterday’s column on the Subtle Art of Eating Blowfish, and the second installment in a three-part series.

The best time to eat fugu is in the winter, when blowfish pack on the pounds to beat the chill. Needless to say, this is also when the toxicity of the blowfish reaches its peak.

Prices rise. Restaurants are packed. Emergency rooms are on stand-by.

Making sure you don’t meet your maker earlier than prescribed is the fugu chef, a man of exacting precision and immeasurable skill. With a calculated flick of the blade, the fugu chef separates the tender flesh from the poisonous internal organs.

To steal a line from a classic Simpsons episode:

‘Poison. Poison. Poison. Tasty Fish.’

Since the late 1950s, only specially-licensed chefs are allowed to serve fugu to the public. Much like brain surgery and rocket science, not just any average Joe (or in this case average Haruki) can slice up a blowfish. Indeed, an aspiring fugu chef must first serve for several years as an apprentice before they are allowed to take the certification test.

Earning your fugu license consists of three parts: a written test, a species identification test and the practical. Although most applicants breeze through the first two parts, less than two-thirds of apprentices are successful in preparing the blowfish for consumption. Thankfully, the examiners will notify the apprentice if he makes a mistake as not to lose any more students than is necessary.

(And you thought passing your calculus test was hard!)

Thankfully, the rigorous training process ensures that eating blowfish is a somewhat risk-free process. As testament, consider the fact that fugu is sometimes sold in supermarkets, so that you can enjoy eating fugu in the comfort of your own home. Then again, if you do get a bad batch, at least you can have the privilege of dying in your bed whilst surrounded by family and friends.

The high-price of fugu also prevents this deadly meal from becoming a daily staple. On average, a few strips of fugu sashimi costs upwards of ¥5000 (US$40), but can sometimes be found for as little as ¥2500 (US$20). With that said, the art of eating blowfish is somewhat more subtle than biting into a Big Mac, so trust me – spring for the better stuff. If you don’t choose to heed my advice, at least make sure that the chef’s license is prominently displayed in the restaurant.

(It should look something like this.)

Of course, even master chefs make mistakes from time to time – fictional or otherwise. In the Japanese smash hit and American cult classic Iron Chef (料理の鉄人), the last episode tragically ends when Chairman Kaga dies from fugu poisoning.

Accidents do happen.

Tune in tomorrow for the final installment in the three piece column on the subtle art of eating blowfish. At that time, I’ll share all of my favorite fugu recipes with all of you budding chefs out there in cyberspace. Bon appetite!

Check out the third and final installment of The Subtle Art of Eating Blowfish here.

** Special thanks to Flickr user itchys for their picture of the tora-fugu stamp **