Eating poison

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Eating poison

Just as roses have thorns, the puffer fish has the deadly poison tetrodotoxin. The toxin is 13 times more deadly than potassium cyanide. The smallest fatal dose is 1 milligram. “Dongui-bogam,” the King Seonjo-era guide to traditional Korean medicine, said, “If you do not handle and eat the puffer with care, it could kill you.”

There is no poison in the fish’s flesh, but its liver and eggs contain deadly toxins. The black blood in its liver, eggs and backbone should be rinsed away in cold running water to get rid of any poison.

There is an old saying: “A considerable amount of water is required to clean one puffer fish.” It means that the blood should be removed with plenty of water before you cook the puffer.

In scientific circles, experts have continued to debate the origin of the puffer fish’s poison. The question is whether the fish is a poison producer or simply a carrier. The dominant theory these days suggests that the poison of other animals flows into the puffer fish’s body via the food chain. This supports the idea that external factors have a great influence on the puffer fish’s poison.

In Japan, there is a saying: “Do not show Mount Fuji to those who do not eat puffer fish.” A small minority of Japanese people are addicted to the puffer fish’s poison. In some cases, they even eat the highly poisonous liver on purpose as a delicacy, or for other medicinal purposes, to relieve fatigue and physical pains such as sore muscles.

Some even suggest that if you make botulinum toxin thinner, it could be as effective an anti-aging solution as Botox.

However, if the diluted solution does not strike the correct balance and exceeds a certain level, it will become deadly. In one tragic incident, a famous Kabuki actor consumed a fatal dose of the fish’s poison.

Professor Oh Sang-yong of the Hangang Sacred Heart Hospital said that dealing with puffer fish poison is as dangerous as playing Russian roulette, with five bullets in a six-chambered revolver.

The poison, which has long languished in obscurity, has re-emerged has a matter of grave concern. Two middle-aged males were found dead in a car parked on the shoulder of an expressway in Gwangju, Gyeonggi, recently. The police announced that they had drunk a beverage with a small dose of puffer fish poison in it.

There have been several food safety controversies recently - a mouse head in a bag of shrimp crackers, mad cow disease scare, avian influenza, genetically modified corn and puffer fish poison. The people are tired of being afraid of their food.

The writer is a JoongAng Ilbo reporter specializing in food and medicine.

By Park Tae-gyun [tkpark@joongang.co.kr]

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