[Ed. Note: Dr. KSS writes about medicine and biotech stocks for the Irregulars. This article is third in a series on pain. You can see the first part here, and second part here. His words and opinions are his own, and he has agreed to our trading restrictions. Enjoy!]
It’s the stuff of bucket lists: eating fugu (Japanese pufferfish) as culinary Russian roulette. In the first of many sojourns in Japan when I was in school, fugu was a non-negotiable thing. I had to try it.
Most ethnic cuisines (sorry, England) distinguish themselves, but Japanese aesthetic sensibilities as regards eating, riotously depicted in the Japanese foodie comedy Tampopo, reach beyond concerns of how food tastes. Fine food is expected to thrill in appearance. The Japanese crave stark variations in food texture. Ikura, for example, is salmon roe…..little orange spheres to be enjoyed on the tongue just before each egg bursts like a flavor packet. Fugu sashimi is not vaunted because of how it tastes, but for its texture, which is vaguely like vinyl or rubber. Fine-dining Westerners have sorbet to cleanse the palate between courses, but the Japanese achieve the same effect by having concurrent dishes with highly-variable textures, consistencies, and temperatures.
Fugu’s notoriety is because the pufferfish from which it comes ingests algae. From the algae, the pufferfish’s GI tract becomes populated with the bacteria Vibrio alginolyticus, which produces tetrodotoxin, an exquisite nerve poison. It gets concentrated in the fish’s liver and, in the case of female fish, ovaries; why it doesn’t poison the fish is complicated. Tetrodotoxin wards off predators, and in fact tetrodotoxin is also a defense strategy in newts, certain angelfish, and blue-ringed octopuses.
The first-ever reported fugu poisoning is in the captain’s log of James Cook from 7 September 1774. Cook’s crew cast nets and caught a haul of mostly pufferfish. Following a meal, most of the crew became numb and had difficulty breathing. The fish leftovers were mostly fed to pigs aboard the ship, and the crew awoke to find all the pigs dead. Tetrodotoxin on a milligram-for-milligram basis is 100 times as lethal as potassium cyanide. Less than a milligram of tetrodotoxin will kill an adult human.
When one has fugu in Japan, the serving is accompanied by a small plate of chili oil, and you are enjoined to dunk ...
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