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Get your teeth into some succulent puffer-fish – if you dare!


2-3When you were very much younger, did you ever play about with putting one of those boxy little batteries on your tongue? (No comments about ‘shocking behaviour’, please.) Did you ever play cowboys and Indians and shoot each other with homemade bows and arrows? Do you now like those gut-wrenching roller-coaster rides? What about hang-gliding? Para-gliding? Bungee jumping? If the answer to any one of these things is ‘yes’ then you’ll probably be up for a nice plate of puffer fish.

    If you’re not familiar with puffer fish then that’s probably not entirely a bad thing. Most people’s experience of this underwater oddity is limited to having an accidental contact with it, first-hand. Better make that ‘first-foot’, as the introduction is usually made by treading on it. It’s covered in spines. It also just happens to be the world’s second most-poisonous creature (second only to the Golden Poison Frog). But don’t worry; you’ll live to tell the tale. Although some of its venom is present in its skin (and thus transfers to its spines), the main concentration is in the fish’s liver, gall bladder and intestines. And it’s certainly deadly – weight-for-weight being 1,000 times more volatile than cyanide, and with enough toxin (tetrodotoxin) in one fish to kill 30 human adults. And there’s no known antidote, either.

      There are more than 120 species worldwide, and most are in tropical and subtropical waters. It’s rare to come across one close to the shores of Samui – certainly there’s no record of anyone ever having stepped on one. Now and then scuba divers will see them on or around the offshore reefs. But mostly they are hauled up in trawl nets along with the rest of the catch. The majority of these are caught in the more northern parts of the Gulf of Siam but with a few appearing in the area around Phuket.

       They’re fairly small, usually around four to eight inches in length and have long, tapered bodies with bulbous heads. The ones found in our region are not readily noticed, having a muted fawn-brown colouring to blend in with their environment. But when provoked or threatened they live up to their name and inflate alarmingly, often blowing up to the size of a football. Overall, they’re not a threat and you’ve a far higher chance of coming to harm by falling off your motorbike. Unless you still have a thrill-seeking personality, that is, and decide to try to eat one.

       Yes – it’s true, people really do this! But it has to be said that it’s mainly in Japan that the spirit of ninja still drives people in this direction. In other parts of the world, it’s usually the folks who can remember the taste of batteries on their tongue who do it, or jump off buildings, or out of helicopters! But in Japan, it’s all about the spirituality of dicing with death, and the uplifting sense of survival and achievement, instead. Whereas other similarly ethnocentric dishes are rooted in herbalism and magic (powdered rhino horn or bird’s nest soup for virility or long life) this is a dish for the brave of heart. It’s a bit like playing Russian roulette with a Thai fish in a Japanese restaurant. Well – not really. Because the Japanese chefs who handle this sort of thing are the best in the world at what they do. They have to be. They’ll be out of a job if their customers die.

      The whole business of eating puffer fish – known as fugu to the Japanese – is actually full of shades of grey. Such is the prestige of having dined on fugu and lived to tell the tale that there is now a flourishing market in the battery culture of non-toxic puffer fish. Meaning that the Tokyo 30-something stockbroker can spend a small fortune not dancing with wolves and live to boast about it. But the real thing still exists. If you know where to go, you’ll get the 100% deadly fugu served to you. It’ll cost you ten times the price of the city version. And this is what Japanese people do when they feel the need for a spiritual resolution.

      The chefs have been trained for years. They know exactly at what angle to tilt their knives to miss the poisonous bits. They’ll serve it you as sashimi or fried-in-the-pan. In Shimonoseki, a city at the westernmost tip of Honshu Island and the undisputed centre of the Japanese fugu culture, there are tourist packages and hotels that cater only for the fugu experience. It’s big business. The whole fugu thing has become a ritual, almost a rite of passage, for those determined to succeed in the dog-eat-dog business environment of Japan. It seems that if you can survive the real thing then the gods are with you and the fortune cookies will be forever . . . fortunate.

      All of this makes my jaws ache – probably from the continual clenching while I think about it. Certainly it has far more meaning than merely yahooing out of a cargo plane without a parachute just for the fun of it. And eating fugu should not be done merely as a result of boredom, no matter where you come from.

      But I’m on Samui. And so are you. None of us have come here so that we can challenge the gods and survive in order to succeed in life, love and business. We’re getting pleasantly-piddled by the pool in the hot afternoon sun. We’re spending an hour or more each evening trying to decide between ’dogs, ’burgers, pizzas or fine-dining. We’ve all come here because we – even if only for a week or two – are in love with life and want to enjoy it to the max while we can. And if you can’t relate to any of this, then probably the only thing for you is to go and sink your teeth into some puffer fish – and hope you live to tell the tale!

Rob De Wet


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