Are all seafood-based cultures this entertaining? The New York Times today writes of how successful efforts by Japanese scientists to detoxify the liver of the deadly local delicacy known as fugu – i.e the puffer fish – has set fur flying over here. For centuries, Japanese diners have forked over huge handfuls of cash to sample tiny slivers of fugu liver (sashimi style, naturally), which expert chefs prepare by leaving in it just enough of the fish’s innate neurotoxin to make tasters’ tongues tingle and numb the lips. It’s not a perfect process, of course, and so every year a few dozen unlucky saveurs suffer death by tetrodotoxin, a chemical that leaves victims mentally aware as they become completely paralyzed, then die of heart failure or suffocation. Bummer.

I’ve tried fugu, and it’s definitely not all that – your standard whitefish, if you ask me. I haven’t tried the liver, since it’s officially illegal to serve or eat fugu liver in Japan, but there’s a huge unofficial business in many restaurants for contraband fugu liver. In any event, it’s not the taste that makes Japanese people go crazy for fugu, it’s the risk. And the price, which is astronomical. Here, potentially deadly + expensive = wildly popular. I can think of a few other modern examples where this formula obtains – cigarette smoking and cocaine come to mind – but at least with those, the rush you get from partaking is more than imaginary.

The uproar here is, no big surprise, loudest at the fugu supplier’s end. They fear that breeding nonpoisonous fugu will make it just another fish and drive prices down. So they’re insisting that even detoxified fugu liver is deadly and should remain illegal, all the while encouraging its illicit sale under the restaurant table.

There’s an idea here that Japanese Whaling Commission officials – constantly screaming about the rights of Japan to kill whales in the name of “tradition” even though nobody here likes the stuff – would be smart to latch hold of: hire a few rogue scientists to figure out a way to make whale meat, or kujira, deadly poisonous. Then make it illegal. They’d have a billion-yen-a-year market on their hands in no time.

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