Damien Enright: Should you forgo fugu?

Fugu fish caught off Gomera. They puff themselves up by sucking in water and/or air.
Fugu fish caught off Gomera. They puff themselves up by sucking in water and/or air.

Maybe, like emperor of Japan, you should forgo fugu

Fugu, the extremely toxic pufferfish considered a number one delicacy in Japan, have been filmed biting floating beer cans in half with a single snap of their four large teeth, set in powerful jaws and normally used for crushing the shells of crustaceans and molluscs, their natural prey.

Pufferfish species are present off Irish coasts. As long ago as 2002, an article in Matt Murphy’s informative quarterly, Sherkin Comment, reported that a blunthead pufferfish had been caught off Donegal in 1984, the most northerly record at that time. The author, Declan T Quigley, now senior port officer of Eastern Region, the Irish Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, suggested that warming oceans might be the cause.

Four species of fugu, one of them the extremely toxic oceanic pufferfish, have been recorded in Irish waters. They are now regularly encountered in the sea off this island of La Gomera, Canary Islands, sometimes in shoals. For fishermen, their behaviour is bothersome and costly.

Most fishing on this island is ‘artisan’ — a single fisherman, alone or with a helper, often family, on a large, open, wooden boat. They fish the ‘alturas’, the deep water canyons (there is no continental shelf around the island) to depths of 500m. The fish they catch are large; the invention of the electric reel in the middle 1950s was a boon to those who could afford one.

Now, however, they sometimes run into shoals of fugu. Commercially valueless, but with teeth like bolt-cutters, they bite through their lines, lures, and hooks, all at a costly loss. The fisherman has no alternative but to fish elsewhere.

Recalling fugu brings back Japan, and the thought that I could have used fugu teeth myself in a downtown Tokyo restaurant when I was dining with some middle-level executives whom I was helping with English and who wanted their lesson to continue after the evening class.

All was going swimmingly well — what with the warm saki, refilled as soon as it was drained — until I bit into a supposedly delicious sea slug. I had been told it was a sea slug, but hadn’t been told what eating it entailed. Biting into it glued my upper and lower jaws together.

Additional English was suspended until I went to the bathroom and somehow prized them apart. Who knows but that evening, I might have, unknowingly, consumed morsels of a super-expensive, deadly-poisonous fugu fish. Only chefs who have qualified after three years of rigorous training are allowed to prepare the fish, for which they earn the equivalent of medical consultants’ wages.

Pufferfish are generally believed to be the second-most poisonous vertebrates in the world, after the golden poison frog. For their protection from predators, nature arranges that their systems retain tetrodotoxin, a powerful neurotoxin, from the shellfish they eat. Many species are deadly to other fish, and to humans. The poison in one fish can kill 30 adults, and there is no known antidote.

Aficionados of dicing with death at dinner-time consider the liver, the most dangerous part of the fugu, to be the tastiest, and the expert chef will leave just enough of it for the diner to enjoy a tingling of the lips and waves of euphoria, while not inducing terminal collapse on his plate.

The toxins act like nerve agents, but also provide a unique high. If too much is ingested, however, the diner may well seize up and, within minutes be saying a final “sayonara...” to his dining companions. Serving fugu liver in restaurants was banned in Japan in 1984.

The emperor of Japan is forbidden by law to eat fugu. It is “dame” (pronounced dah-may), meaning it is not allowed. I’m surprised that anybody can dictate to the “God certified sovereign” what he may and may not do. I imagine he voluntarily foregoes getting high on fugu because it’s the wish of his people that his life shouldn’t be put at risk. The British public would probably wish the same attitude on the queen if she announced that she fancied giving fugu a try.

However, if Johnson or Cummings fancied fugu liver sashimi, who knows what the public would say.

On quite another theme, Peter Creedon got in touch with me through this newspaper to report the unusual sight, outside Crookstown in mid-Cork, of a three-mile-wide expanse of twilight sky, filled with thousands of large birds, flying very high, north to south. He wondered if they could be rooks.

I believe he was right — that they were rooks lifted on updrafts to the floor of heaven, tribes and families from a hundred scattered rookeries riding the thin air as they clamoured and cawed and celebrated summer, while teaching their ancient language to their young.

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