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Published: July 28th 2008
Is the evil blowfish - also known as puffer, globefish, or swellfish - in danger of extinction? In Japan, eating the honorable fugu (blowfish) is the ideal of gourmet dining-and the cooking version of Russian roulette. According to Japan Economic newswire, a Japanese wholesaler exported the first 90 kg of vacuum-packed fugu to Hong Kong in October 1995. Hong Kong is the second market to import fugu from Japan. New York, which started importing the fish in 1989, currently sells about 1 tons of fugu every year, according to the wholesaler. Fugu's trade volume is rising because of people's curiosity in eating such fish.
In Japanese, the word fugu is a general name for fish of the family Tetraodontidae, class Osteichthyes, order Tetraodontiformes, but it is also used more broadly, like the English word globefish, to indicate other fish which can swell their bellies or have a solid square shape. It is also used more narrowly as the name of the genus Fugu of the family Tdtraodontidae living only in waters surrounding Japan and the rivers emptying into them. Several species including the torafugu (fugu rubripes) are used for food.
While the fugu has long been praised in Japan as the most delicious of all fishes, it has also been feared, as improper preparation may cause fatal poisoning. Even in the Meiji period (1868-1912) the sale of fugu was prohibited in some districts. The poisonous parts, such as the ovary and the liver, have been identified and strict supervision has been exercised by health authorities. This development has served to decrease the number of accidents, but, nonetheless, fugu caused the death of a famous kabuki (traditional Japanese theater arts) actor in 1975. At present, fugu dishes are enjoyed as delicacy, and lanterns made of torafugu skins, originally children's toys, are sold to tourists as folk part in Kanazawa, Shimonoseki, Moji, and other cities.
The best season for fugu dishes is during the winter. Therefore, there is a large difference in prices over the seasons. Japan has been successful in artificial cultivation of fugu. Fishers catch fugu in spring because it is the spawning season. Then, they cultivate these fish in a cage in the sea. They raise fish until the price goes up and start selling fugu in the fish market in late fall. Fugu are sold while they are alive, therefore, transportation for fugu is exclusively arranged. The fugu's mouth are stitched shut because fugu tend to fight with each other in a small space.
There are nearly 100 kinds of fugu worldwide, 38 of them found in Japan. The ovaries, skin, muscles and, above all, the liver may contain a deadly poison, similar to curare for which there is no known antidote. Yet fugu has been eaten in China for thousands of years and in Japan for hundreds. Ten thousands tons of fugu are consumed each year in Japan. Farmed fugu, not feeding on plankton, is not lethal. Usually, fishermen catch fugu with a fish hook and a fish net. They start farming fugu in a cage which they build in the ocean in the spring, the egg-laying time. They feed fugu on fresh fish until they grow up. Fishermen start to sell them from late autumn to early winter. There is also full-scale farming such as the artificial insemination. The small, spotted torafugu-the most dangerous and delicious variety are caught off the Korean coast in winter. It weighs as much as four pounds and
costs one hundred dollars or more at Tokyo fish market. Fishermen use this fish, which blows it self up when threatened to make the lanterns that hang outside fugu restaurants. Only specially licensed cooks who know exactly how to cut up fugu are allowed to work there.
At the University of Tokyo, professor Hashimoto and his colleague Noguchi showed a small brown vial of puffer poison, known as tetrodoxin. A pinch of the white powder -- about the amount found in one prime-sized tiger fugu -- is enough to kill more than 30 persons. The estimated lethal dose for an adult, a mere one to two milligrams, could be put on a pinhead. Puffer toxin blocks sodium channels in nerve tissues, ultimately paralyzing muscles. Respiratory arrest is the cause of death. There is no proven antidote, perhaps because the toxin has a molecular structure unlike anything previously known to organic chemistry. Because of its potency -- it is 1250 times deadlier than cyanide -- the toxin is an important tool in modern neurological research. In diluted from it is also used as a painkiller for victims of neuralgia, arthritis and rheumatism.
Despite the danger, demand for puffer dishes is increasing so fast that Japanese fishing grounds are being depleted. Today, Japanese are culturing the fish on aquafarms. Every year from October through March, millions of diners bet their lives on not getting fatally poisoned. Thanks to strict regulations of restaurants and wholesalers, the number of deaths decreases each year. But this curious and preposterous fish remains the world's most deadly feast. The enigma of the fugu is summed up in the traditional expression:
Those who eat fugu soup are stupid.
But those who don't eat fugu soup are also stupid.
Fugu 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 $200. Yet fugu was increasingly popular. Each winter for 1982 and 1983, for example, has brought 40 million dollars in fugu sales at the small Haedomari Market in Shimonoseki, Japan's "fugu city." At one o'clock in the morning in the market, a large, high-roofed warehouse on the waterfront where 80 percent of Japan's fugu catch is sold. Even at that hour the fishermen have already transferred into warehouse tanks hundreds of live fish caught as far away from Korea. At wholesale price of $20 a pound, an auctioneer Hisashi Matsumura has auctioned each box of fish for $1,500 or more, all on a handshake. This morning he sells two tons of puffers -- $80,000 worth -- in about 40 minutes. From Shimonoseki, they will be tracked or flown throughout the country.
However, the Wall Street Journal on December 1991 said that the sales are off as much as 50% at many of Tokyo's fancy blowfish restaurants as slowdown chills yet another sector of economy. Government officials said the economy is growing at a still respectable 3% annual rate, but they are looking at macro-indicators, ranging from the level of blowfish sales to the lavishness of year-end parties, exposes a more gloomy outlook. Blowfish isn't necessity but it is one of the most popular-and pricy-ways for companies to entertain their best customers in winter. At Takefuku, a blowfish restaurant in Tokyo Ginza district, a meal made up if a blowfish hor d'oeuvre, blowfish sashimi, blowfish stew, blowfish-and-rice soup and fruit easily costs 30,000 yen ($230) a head. All of this makes it a kind of early indicator of the business climate.
From: http://www.american.edu/TED/blowfish.htm by Akiko Takeda (May, 1996)
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