Fugu: Food To Die For.

9:10 AM Jmo 0 Comments

     When I lived in and worked in Korea as an elementary English teacher, it was customary to show face at dinner “meetings” after school. These usually took place on Wednesdays or Fridays and lasted anywhere from two to four hours, depending how rowdy your principal and fellows teachers planned on getting that night.
     While in South Korea, I chose to be extremely flexible when it came to my diet; try everything! South Koreans bond over food. The dishes are typically large, communally served, and sat in the middle of the dining table. They’re culture fastens around dining together and any effort put towards this cultural bond is greatly appreciated. So, when these dinner meetings came to be, I genuinely took interest in asking what was for dinner out of pure cultural curiosity. I never once thought that I should ask what was for dinner in order to live another year longer.

A typical 'Teacher-Meeting'.

     One Friday after school, like so many before, we all went out together to a local restaurant near our elementary school. What are we having?  Ah, we’re having fish stew. Fish stew? Ok, I can handle that. I’ve eaten fish intestine stew with my coworkers before so this dish seemed like the Minor Leagues.  A colleague of mine filled up my bowl with a giggle and placed it in front of me. It was a small, shallow bowl, full of a mild broth, onions, greens vegetables, and white pieces of fish with thick skin clinging to it. It was quite beautiful actually and I welcomed the change from the usual beef or heavy starchy-salty rice dishes we usually go out for. I took a few bites, and slurped down some broth. I sat for a bit, chatting to my coworkers, when suddenly …the inside of my mouth began to go numb. 

     My gums tingled, my tongue felt swollen, and my lips felt anesthetized.  I dove a bit deeper into my stew and turned over the large, pale chunk of fish inside. At the end of the thick, white and green striped, gelatinous skin was a spiny bit of tail. Immediately the inside of my chest became hot. I knew what this was: This was FUGU: A poisonous Japanese blowfish.

    I paused, my spoon hovering chin-distance above my bowl, and looked up at my coworkers. “Is this fugu?”, I said motioning at the large, simmering pot in the middle of all of us.  Two of my colleagues quickly whipped out their phones and began to scroll through to find a translation of the Korean dishe's name. "Here!", my sweet Sumin said proudly displaying the word blowfish on her phone. Then another coworker joined in showing me an article in English on her phone, not understanding that the title of the article contained the word "poison" in it. ha!

My bowl of Fugu~

    Did I die? Obviously not? Was I happy to be alive later on in the night?
Somewhat, yes. Would I've rather been asked beforehand when eating a poisonous animal? Maybe. But, sometimes it's better to be blissfully ignorant? The jury is still out on that one...

     Fugu, when not prepared properly, can be fatal when ingested. Its organs contain a poison that when consumed can cause paralysis and death with similar affects of coming into contact with a nerve agent. Fugu poison is 1,200 times stronger than cyanide. And! There is no antidote. Now you can see why I was a bit flustered when my mouth began to go numb...

'dat Fugu, doe
(photo credit National Geographic)

     Fugu has a relatively bland taste. Its flesh and texture reminded me of an undercooked catfish.  Its meat is white, gelatinous, and disappears into whatever other flavors you cook it with. So, why eat it? 
     Like many dangerous, "exotic", or rare foods in Asia it's all about showing your manliness. Fugu, and many dishes like it, can show strength or weakness, wealth and power, status and virility. It's expensive, it's relatively rare, and it can kill you. All those factors make it highly sought after. That's exactly why we had it at our teacher's dinner. My principal was showing off.

     Will I try it again? No.  Do I suggest you do? Not really. But if you're into checking off  'Bucket List' worthy food items... look no further than Fugu: A Food To Die For.

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