The heady rush of mild flesh and poison

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The heady rush of mild flesh and poison

The puffer fish is not something you want to try eating in the wild. First, it has very sharp teeth. If you get past those, it has poisonous spines. Get one in your mouth, and it will inflate to three times its size, poking through your face. Swallow, and its liver and other organs have enough poison to kill 30 men.

Yet every winter, people flock to Busan from all over Korea and beyond to eat puffer fish.

Hundreds used to died annually from poorly prepared puffer, aka fugu. Last year, not a single person perished. We learn from our mistakes, or our friends and closest relatives do. Most casualties tried to fillet the fugu on their own. It takes a specially trained chef to safely skin and dress a puffer.

How did anyone find out the fugu was edible, considering the difficulties and dangers? Why did anyone risk discovering the technique? Puffers are known worldwide; it is only in East Asia that anyone tries to eat them. The Bible prohibits eating fish without scales; some believe this is a specific warning against the Red Sea puffer or blowfish.

The puffer's poison, tetradoxin is a thousand times deadlier than cyanide. Its effect, specifically, is on the nervous system. It causes paralysis, and, in 60 percent of cases, death. There is no antidote.

There is a chance, then, that the puffer first drew attention as an efficient way of killing people. Its edibility, once stripped of the useful toxins, might have been an unexpected by-product.

For comparison, consider that old mainstay of American children's cuisine, tapioca. Tapioca is crushed cassava root with the juice squeezed out. This is a necessity. The juice is deadly poison, used to tip arrows and blow darts by Brazilian tribes. Tapioca seems to have originated as an industrial waste.

So it may have been with fugu.

Those who survive poisoning report interesting mental and emotional effects. Trace doses of tetradoxin -- a pinhead's worth would kill -- are mind-altering. Fugu is considered an aphrodisiac, and this may be why. This, too, may have been an impetus for its discovery as a cuisine.

This psychotropic effect makes the puffer very valuable in Haitian voodoo. It is, according to some scholars, the active ingredient that produces zombies. Powdered fugu is fed to the victim. Dosed precisely, he does not die, but falls into a trance. Paralyzed, but conscious, he is pronounced dead, laid in his coffin and buried. The person who did the poisoning then digs the body up and takes the victim, highly suggestible, as a slave. His family will not think to search for him. He is the living dead.

Were there zombies in Korea? Who knows what might have happened in the distant past? Puffer fish hieroglyphs in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs suggest that it was well known to man some 5,000 years ago. Some secret knowledge may have spread throughout Africa, to the Caribbean, to Korea and Japan.

In the right dosage, tetradoxin also kills all feeling. This makes it similar to some anesthetics used today. Those who prize puffer sometimes claim they can sense a numbness in their lips and tongue from a particularly good meal of fugu: this would be the paralyzing effect of tetradoxin in scant doses. Perhaps, in some cultures, the puffer may first have been prized by herbalists.

Busan fugu is especially valued because it is the tastiest puffer of the perhaps 15 varieties in Korea and hundreds worldwide. In addition, Busan chefs are considered the most expert in its preparation, striving to accentuate its delicate flavor rather than mask it with pepper.

Puffer is best eaten now and, especially, in winter. Its poison levels surge in the spring to protect it during spawning.

Is it worth it?

Why not? What's the worst that can happen?

Stephen Roney teaches at University College of the Cariboo, Kamloops, Canada. Contact him at or on the web at

by Stephen Roney

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