Friday, August 17, 2012

Ken Follett and Fugu

Have been reading Ken Follett’s ‘Fall Of Giants,’  a ripping gripping yarn all 850 pages of it with a cast of millions (First Word War/ Russian Revolution) no, but seriously, folks, I really have enjoyed it, nose glued to the page whenever possible. But alas, oh, alas, another author for whom the past tense is summed up in only one word – “ago!” Damn it all ago ago ago ago when there are so many ways of describing the past. Am I the only reader to be irritated by it? Hang on, where did I complain about this before? Could it have been Ken Follett with ‘Pillars Of The Earth?’ A book I also thoroughly enjoyed. I don’t remember and I’m not going back however many Blogs to find out. If he is the culprit both times cut “alas, oh, alas, another author,” above, it obviously doesn’t apply – except I am now reading ‘Broken Idols’ by Sean Flannery and guess what – it’s ago time again! Turns out he’s another wordsmith whose only description of the past is ‘ago.’ Ago ago ago. Everything that ever happened happened ago. It’s a shame really that otherwise perfectly acceptable writing should be spoilt or is it just me being ultra-finicky in old age? I see I bought it in the second-hand shop in Xania for 100 drachmas so that must be all of fifteen years ago!
Human beings really are the weirdest animals. The world is full of the strangest and most exotic foods. Chinese supermarkets are awash with them; to most of which Westerners would turn up their noses or puke quite violently. The Japanese delicacy fugu, or blowfish, is so poisonous that the smallest mistake in its preparation could be fatal but Tokyo's city government is planning to ease restrictions that allow only highly trained and licensed chefs to serve the dish. Why would one want to eat something possibly so deadly when there is so much else to chose from? Chef Kunio Miura always uses his special knives to prepare fugu - wooden-handled with blades tempered by a wordsmith to a keen edge. Before he starts work in his kitchen they are brought to him by an assistant, carefully stored in a special box. Miura-san, as he is respectfully known, has been cutting up blowfish for 60 years but still approaches the task with caution. A single mistake could mean a customer’s death.
Fugu is an expensive delicacy and the restaurants that serve it are among the finest in Japan. In Miura-san's establishment a meal starts at $120 (£76) a head, but people are willing to pay for the assurance of the fugu chef licence mounted on his wall, yellowed now with age. He is one of a select guild authorised by Tokyo's city government to serve the dish.
In preparation the chef first lays the dispatched fish on its stomach and cuts open the head to removes its brain and eyes. These are carefully placed in a metal tray marked "non-edible". Then he removes the skin and starts cutting at the guts. Pulling out the ovaries “This is the most poisonous part,” he says. “But the liver and intestines are potentially lethal too. People say it is 200 times more deadly than cyanide.” The first recorded case can be found in Captain Cook’s logs in 1774 after crew members ate the fish.
Tetrodotoxin is named after the Tetraodontiformes order of fish, which includes blowfish. It is also found in blue-ringed octopuses, some toads, newts and other animals. According to government figures, since 2000 twenty-three people have died in Japan after eating fugu, Most of the victims being anglers who rashly tried to prepare their catch at home. A spokesman for the Health and Welfare Ministry struggles to think of a single fatality in a restaurant, though last year a woman was hospitalised after eating a trace of fugu liver in one of Tokyo's top restaurants. Tetrodotoxin poisoning has been described as "rapid and violent", first a numbness around the mouth, then paralysis, finally death. The unfortunate diner remains conscious to the end. There is no antidote. Maybe the hospitalized woman didn’t eat quite enough.
You don't need to dine out in a Japanese restaurant to sup on potentially fatal fare.  More humble foods could also be dangerous. Mushrooms, while benign in many varieties, can cause serous illness including kidney failure and even death. Peanuts can be dangerous to those with severe nut allergies. Potatoes with a greenish hue can be dangerous when consumed in large enough quantities. What is a large enough quantity?
Now in Tokyo fugu is available in some supermarkets and over the internet - one reason why officials think the strict rules need updating.
In typical Japanese fashion where artistry reigns supreme the translucent slices of fugu are carefully arranged in the form of chrysanthemum petals served up on a beautiful floral design plate, the fish sliced so thinly the plate pattern can be seen underneath. At least you will die appreciating the delicacy of it. In terms of cost, it is likely fugu would become available in cheaper restaurants  but going to a proper fugu restaurant to eat good wild-caught fish, prepared on-site, is quite a luxury - because of the cost, if nothing else - and also quite an event. For many, playing the equivalent of Russian roulette at the dinner table is the attraction of the dish; that extra thrill that comes with the knowledge that by eating it you are dicing with death; and your death will be recorded as such and such a time ago!

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