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Discovering blowfish ovaries in the Big Apple'

By By Robert St. John / food columnist
July 2, 2003
Robert St. John is the executive chef/owner of the Purple Parrot Caf and Crescent City Grill in Hattiesburg and Meridian. He can be reached at Robert@nsrg.com or (601) 264-0672.
New Yorkers are a strange breed.
The island of Manhattan probably offers more restaurants per square foot than any place on the planet. I have eaten some excellent food there. I have also encountered strange food there none as strange as blowfish ovaries.
That's right, blowfish ovaries. In New York's sushi restaurants, trend-seekers are shelling out as much as $250 a pop to eat blowfish. A fish which, I am told, tastes good. However, there is one drawback. The blowfish's ovaries are highly toxic.
And New Yorkers think that we are the region filled with idiots.
The strange foods I have encountered in the course of my life have been relatively harmless. Save a mild case of gas here and a minor case of heartburn there, my eating career has only run into a few minor bumps on the culinary super-highway. Never have I intentionally eaten anything that was poisonous, much less deadly.
Very poisonous
Blowfish are also known as pufferfish. But for our purposes, we will call them blowfish. After all, rock and roll would be an entirely different game if we had been listening to Hootie and the Pufferfish.
Blowfish ovaries contain an alkaloid poison known as tetrodotoxin, which sounds like the active ingredient found in sugarless gum or a laundry detergent. The poison is deadly, there is no known antidote for it, yet people continue to eat the blowfish, ovaries and all.
The ovaries of the fish are more poisonous than cyanide there is disagreement as to how much more poisonous.
In my research, one report stated twice as poisonous, another stated 1,200 times more poisonous and still another stated 10,000 times more poisonous. Let's not argue details, people.
Can we all agree that cyanide is plenty poisonous and even if blowfish ovaries are half as poisonous as cyanide, it's not a good idea to be eating them? A pinch of tetrodotoxin about the amount found in one blowfish ovary is enough to kill more than 30 people.
The estimated lethal dose for an adult, one milligram, could be put on a pinhead, and New Yorkers keep on eating.
So, why do it?
How can anything taste so good that you would risk your life to eat it? I ate some banana pudding once that I would give a week's pay to have another batch. I once ate a piece of caramel cake that I would consider trading one of my pinky toes for another slice.
But drop dead in the middle of a sushi restaurant for a slice of fish? No, thanks. I won't play Russian roulette at lunch.
Blowfish is cooked by specially-trained chefs who supposedly know how to "minimize the amount of poison" in the serving of blowfish. The key word in that sentence is "minimize."
Even so, many Japanese diners have died from eating this poisonous delicacy and over 100 people die each year from eating poorly prepared blowfish.
One might ask, "Why not cut out the ovaries?" Actually, I would be the one who would ask such a question. Supposedly, the ovaries are a delicacy.
Even still, in some blowfish, the skin, liver and the muscles are poisonous, too. How is the "specially trained chef" going to know if a pinhead-sized piece of poison fell off of the skin and onto your sushi?
Call me chicken, but…
New Yorkers consume over one ton of blowfish each year. They call us fools because we eat grits. A large bowl of grits will cost the average Mississippian about $2, whereas a small serving of blowfish ovaries will cost the average Upper East Sider around $250. Grits are bland, but blowfish can kill you. Who is the fool now?
New Yorkers aren't the only ones eating blowfish. There are people in other cites eating this deadly delicacy. It's just that New Yorkers are so much more fun to pick on.
I love sushi. I eat it weekly, but I stick with the mainstream stuff, no fad food. After all, why should I pay $250 in New York for a meal that might potentially kill me when I can have an egg-salad sandwich at the greasy spoon down the street and risk my life for only $3.95?

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