Blowfish are not very good swimmers, they are dreary, nearly unsightly, they are covered with spines and contain a toxin about 100 times more poisonous than cyanide; however they are considered a delicacy and a highly coveted meal in Japanese cuisine.
Blowfish in nature
There are about 120 species of blowfish, also known as “Puffer fish” in Canada and “Swelling toad” in the United States. One of the most recognized species is the Japanese tiger blowfish, known to science as Takifugu rubripes; torafugu, or fugu for short to Japanese cooks. The tiger blowfish inhabits marine and brackish waters of the western Pacific, including the Korean peninsula, the western part of the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, northward to the island of Hokkaido.
Tiger blowfish for sale at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.
The reason these species are known as blowfish or puffer fish relates to their defense mechanism against predators. When threatened, they can quickly swallow a large volume of water into their stomach and inflate their body to about four times its normal size. This also causes the spines in their surface to become erect. The result is that the animal turns into a hard, thorny, un-edible ball, hardly appealing to a predator. Some large fish, however, are able to eat smaller puffer fish, which normally kill the predator from the ingestion of the lethal toxin blowfish carry in its internal organs, particularly the in the liver, gonads and intestines.
Yamafuku Restaurant, in Kyoto, Japan, specializes in tiger blowfish (puffer fish).
tetrodotoxin (TTX), a neurotoxin roughly 100 times more poisonous than potassium cyanide, for which there in no known antidote. The ingestion of minute amounts of TTX produces paralysis of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, causing respiratory failure and death.
There are two dining rooms at Yamafuku: one for guests wearing shoes (horigotatsu-style); another for guests taking their shoes off (Japanese style).
The people of Japan are well known as eager seafood consumers, and blowfish has been part of their diet for centuries. The flesh of the fish is deemed a delicacy because of its texture and flavor.
A selected number of licensed Japanese chefs receive special training from a master chef in the processing of blowfish to make it safe to eat. Although large and small cities in Japan have an abundance of sushi and sashimi restaurants offering regular fish and shellfish species, few places dare to specialize in serving this dangerous fish.
Tiger blowfish restaurant in Kyoto
One such restaurant is Yamafuku in Kyoto. The tiger blowfish-specialized restaurant is located on
Blowfish (puffer fish) sashimi, thin slices of raw fish displayed in the shape of a chrysanthemum.
Tiger blowfish fare at Yamafuku Restaurant, Kyoto, Japan.
Kawabata Street, across the Kamo River, in the Gion-Shijo district. Blowfish is usually served as sashimi with very fine raw slices of the semi-crystalline flesh arranged in the shape of a flower (such as chrysanthemum). The flesh is indeed firm, with a pleasant texture, but the taste is mild, not much different than raw slices of flatfish (sole, flounder). The overall impression is that blowfish as a major delicacy is a bit over-rated.
A regular blowfish full-course meal including sushi, sashimi, dip-fried or char-broiled pieces, thin skin strips, and bones “with flesh residue”, accompanied with rice, assorted vegetables, and desert, can cost about US$65, but if one wants to splurge, a blowfish V.I.P. full-course meal can be had for about US$115.
Thus, if something goes wrong and the chef makes a tiny mistake while processing the fish (an unlikely event), one can leave the place not only 115 dollars poorer, but also dead.
Use of TTX as medication
Note: WEX Pharmaceuticals Inc., a Vancouver-based Canadian biotechnology company, has been working on clinical trials to use Tetrodotoxin (TTX) as an analgesic for the treatment of moderate to severe cancer-related pain. The research aims to determine the safety and effectiveness of TTX in relieving pain; reducing the use of other painkiller medications with undesirable side effects, and improving the quality of life for metastatic patients.
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