August 11

As the Worm Turns: To Sushi or Not to Sushi

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The title of a recent article in the Health & Fitness section of the New York Times immediately caught my eye: Tale of the Tapeworm (Sqeamish Readers Stop Here)

There is no living human (particularly not ‘a medical man’ as my darling husband calls me) more horrified and repelled than I by the thought, let alone the sight, of anything remotely wormy. I made it through the required medical school curriculum in Parasitology with a high grade only by an act of sheer will and a most excellent ability to memorize what I hear without having to look at it much. The sight of anything that motates with a wriggling, writhing motion–be it snake, worm, caterpillar, or lowly slug–instantly sends electric shockwaves coursing through me that travel down to the very tips of my fingers and toes. It’s a deep, primal thing that cannot be countered by any sort of fact, logic, or rational thinking. Mike, who doesn’t have a squeamish corpuscle in his body, can’t relate, thus, my horror is usually met with his “Get a grip; you’re a ‘medical man’ philosophy.”

That worms abound in the world I can (and surely must) accept. That they might abound in me, horrifies me to the bone. And yet, I adore sushi and sashimi. I could eat it two or three times a day. My mouth waters for delicate fresh chunks of hamachi or ahi, dipped in soy sauce and wasabi. Mmm-m-m-m-mmmmm!

But certainly, there are some risks inherant in eating raw fish…picking up fish-borne broad (tape) or round worms among them.

Eeeeeeeeek!

My mother always claimed that eating hot peppers killed parasites and, for that reason, she ate them plentifully. (She, too, had the primal worm-o-phobic gene, which I suppose is where my own originated.) I can remember her taking whole, hot, canned jalapenos and popping them into her mouth, biting off the stems, and chewing them up. If she broke a good sweat across her brow, she declared them fit. If she got a really, really hot one, she’d remark that one day she probably be carried off by a lethal jalapeno, but better that than worms!

I’d also heard, that along the same line, wasabi, the hot Japanese horseradish-like substance, always served alongside your sushi or sashimi did much the same thing.

With the rise in popularity of eating sushi in the USA, a couple of curious scientists actually researched the issue and, lo and behold, it appears that the soy and wasabi actually do some good, particularly in reducing potential bacterial contaminants. (If you’d like to read the abstract of the article, click here.)

But I can’t think of sushi and wasabi in particular, without its calling to mind a scene that played out before us once between a couple seated next to us at a sushi bar in Boulder, Colorado.

From the gist of their conversation–which we couldn’t help overhearing in such close quarters–they were on a date, perhaps even a first one. The gentleman was clearly trying to make a good impression and prove how avant garde his palate truly was. The female of the pair, an attractive, slender, blonde woman, much younger than he, seemed to be the sushi veteran of the pair; in fact, we guessed it to have been the guy’s first sushi experience.

She ordered for them, giving him pointers on ordering, what she liked, didn’t like, etc. and he was lapping up her every word with rapt attention, while slurping his miso soup. In due course, the sushi chef set before them a selection of rolls and nigiri tidbits, which, of course, had the obligatory blob of green wasabi on the side of the plate. The novice pointed to the blob and asked her ‘what’s this?’ She sagely replied, “They always put a little bit of guacamole on the plates; I don’t know why, but I never eat it because it’s so high fat.”

Mike and I almost burst out laughing, but masked it by stuffing chunks of yellow tail into our mouths.

We sat quietly there in the weeds next to him, hoping (unkindly, I must admit) that he’d pop that whole glob of ‘guacamole’ into his mouth. What a show that would have been, watching him break the sweat and try to sit there unmoved in front of the fair damsel as the wasabi put the sear on his mouth and sinuses. Unfortunately, he was so keen to impress her, he avoided the ‘guacamole’ altogether.

Pity, too, since according to the science, by doing so he increased his chances for picking up something far less desirable than the blonde he was wooing. Something that might hang around longer, too.


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  1. I have a friend who only likes sushi with cooked fish, while I tend to like all. However, I never thought that I could be putting myself at that risk. Problem is, I’m not big on soy sauce or wasabi. Perhaps I’ll have to rethink sushi. Any idea if there are particular types that are more prone to these problems?

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Freezing kills the parasites and nowadays, most sushi grade fish has been previously frozen sufficiently to destroy the parasites, so really, you don’t much have to worry. The biggest worry is with raw fresh water fish or with fish that ‘swing both ways’ such as salmon–ie primarily live in the ocean, but move to fresh water to spawn. All that info is in the link under the highlighted word “risks” in the blog, I think. Or at least in one of the links. Bacteria, on the other hand, might survive freezing and that’s where the soy sauce and wasabi come in. But rest assured, if it’s a reputable sushi bar, that, too, is probably not a huge risk.

  2. When I bought my house, the realtor and his wife took me out for dinner. It wasn’t a sushi place per se, but on the side of the dish was a long tubish portion of wasabi. (I guess they wanted to pretty it up by not just plopping it on the plate in a lump.)

    My realtor didn’t know what it was, either, but instead of asking, picked it up with two fingers, shoved the whole thing in his mouth and swallowed. He turned bright red and couldn’t speak for several minutes, but then was fine. I can’t believe he didn’t need to go to the hospital.

    The really bizarre thing about this story? It ALSO happened in Boulder.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Hmmmm. Maybe it’s in the water or it’s the thin mountain air?

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