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Poisonous Fugu : Deadly Fish Still Delights Japan Diners

February 08, 1988|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | Times Staff Writer

SHIMONOSEKI, Japan — Flopping listlessly in a blue plastic carton on the concrete floor of an auction house in this active seaport, showing the ugly gray-green mottles of its dorsal skin, is $100 worth of fish.

On tarpaulins placed around a dank warehouse, similar cartons hold hundreds of its fellows, some showing their white bellies, others inflated in panic to the size of basketballs. Hideo Ono, president of the local fisherman's cooperative and undisputed ruler of this bustling compound, holds a thoroughly superfluous megaphone to his face to bark orders in a foghorn voice.

At 3:20 a.m. a bell rings and the daily auction begins of Japan's paramount culinary delicacy: the globefish or blowfish, or, in Japanese, fugu .

Discriminating Palate

For centuries fugu (pronounced foo-goo) has held Japanese diners in thrall. Its taste subtle to the vanishing point for many Westerners, it is considered indescribably delicious by the discriminating Japanese palate.

But even many Japanese acknowledge that there is one peculiar aspect of fugu that helps place it at the pinnacle of this country's cuisine: The fish is lethally poisonous, concentrating a deadly tetrodotoxin poison--as much as 25 times more lethal than curare--in the tissues of some of its internal organs and portions of its skin. A diner places his or her life in the hands of chefs licensed to prepare only the nonpoisonous white fillet meat.

This contributes strongly to the captivation of the public. Reputedly, the emperor is forbidden to eat fugu. The 17th-Century poet Basho sang of its flavor and danger. And every diner has heard how fugu poisoning characteristically begins with numbness in the extremities and progresses to a generalized nervous paralysis even as the victim's mind continues functioning to take in the seriousness of his or her condition.

Licensed Chefs

In the past, before the government imposed rigorous training and licensing standards on fugu chefs, hundreds of diners died each year from even the merest taste of fugu liver, ovaries, or skin.

Today, fugu meals prepared at any of Japan's hundreds of specialized restaurants are among the most expensive in the country.

A full dinner of several courses, including sashimi-- slices of raw fish, to be eaten with a soy sauce and green radish dip-- fugu stew, miso soup with fugu chunks and a ceramic tumbler of heated sake with two grilled fugu fins floating within, will run up to $400 a person.

Appropriately, some of these restaurants reflect the highest attainments of the Japanese nouvelle cuisine style of presentation, as fugu sashimi is laid before the diner in intricate patterns amid carefully arranged appetizers and courses.

In living form, the fugu gives little hint of the glories of its cuisine, although in Shimonoseki, where about 90% of Japan's fugu is landed and sold, there is no debating its attributes.

A fleet of 200 trawlers returning from two- to three-week voyages delivers its catch here; last year's landings at Haedomari market totaled 3,126 tons worth $90 million. To illustrate the exceptional value of fugu , consider that the fish accounted for 52% of the seaport's total fish landings but 80% of the catch's total market value.

" Fugu is the king of the fish," proclaimed Ono, of the fishermen's cooperative, as scores of workers manhandle the unlikely monarch into cases before the auction, sorting by size and species.

Like almost every other feature of the fugu trade, the auction process is unique. It begins as auctioneer Hisashi Matsumora slips a black fabric sheath over his right forearm and hand; as he marches down the rows of blue cases, buyers from distributors and restaurants slip their hands inside the sheath, communicating in intricate handshakes their bids for each lot.

Occasionally this covert system produces a tie. Matsumora points at each of the two bidders, and as he marches on, they resolve the tie with a conclusive round of the children's game of rock-scissors-paper.

Deadlocked Bids

Later, the auctioneer is hard-pressed to explain why the co-op does not extract higher bids from the deadlocked buyers, increasing its profit. Fugu is unique, he says, so the auction method is unique.

Japan's sometimes incautious relationship with fugu goes back at least as far as medieval times. Fossilized remains of the fugu's distinctive parrot beak have been found at archeological digs throughout the country; some are blackened, indicating they were cooked.

In Japan's traditional haiku and senryu poetry, fugu seems to occupy a pride of place that Western bards reserve for nothing less intoxicating than wine. One haiku by the master of the form, Basho, goes: "I enjoyed fugu and soup yesterday.

Luckily, nothing has happened."

Only One Remedy

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