Do you worry Fukushima waste water release makes seafood from Japan dangerous? What about the parasites, bacteria, heavy metals and microplastics in seafood generally?

In condemnation of Japan’s decision to release contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean, the governments of Beijing and Hong Kong have banned seafood imports from Japan. Aquatic products from 10 Japanese regions are prohibited from entering Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s partiality for Japanese food, especially its seafood, is legendary, on par with or even surpassing the former Japanese colony of Taiwan.

While raw seafood is associated with Japanese cuisine, in particular sushi and sashimi, the Chinese have also consumed raw seafood as part of their diet for over 1,000 years.

Chinese-style raw fish. It was consumed there from ancient times, but the practice had died away by the Qing dynasty except in Guangdong, records show. Photo: Shutterstock

The earliest record of Chinese consumption of raw seafood is a poem, collected in the anthology Classic of Songs, that depicted the war between King Xuan of the Zhou dynasty (who reigned from 828 to 782 BC) and a tribe called the Xianyun. To celebrate King Xuan’s victory, one of his generals hosted a meal of roasted softshell turtles and raw carp.

The Book of Rites, one of ancient classics of the Confucian canon, contains instructions to eat raw fish with onions in the spring and mustard in the autumn.

These and many later textual references to the consumption of raw fish, shellfish and other aquatic products suggest that for centuries, uncooked seafood eaten with different condiments was considered a delicacy in China.

Consuming raw produce, aquatic or otherwise, is not without its health risks, the most common of which is the ingestion of eggs into the body that hatch into parasites.

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Chen Deng (163–201), a regional governor in the Eastern Han dynasty, was overly fond of raw fish. He felt unwell one day and consulted the famous physician Hua Tuo. Hua diagnosed his ailment as being caused by parasitic worms in his stomach due to his excessive consumption of raw fish.

After taking Hua’s medicine, Chen threw up copious quantities of wriggling, red worms. Chen eventually died from the worm infestation.

Despite the risks and repeated warnings from well-meaning writers, the Chinese continued to enjoy raw seafood over the next several centuries.

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The popularity of raw foods in China suddenly and inexplicably dipped in the 17th century. Perhaps the recent introduction of new ingredients, such as chillies and peanuts, from the Americas, by way of the Spaniards and Portuguese, triggered a culinary renaissance in China, with the creation of more inventive and multidimensional flavours, and raw seafood was one of the casualties of this new food trend.

Perhaps the health warnings were starting to take effect. The influential Compendium of Materia Medica, completed in the late 16th century, warns that raw fish and meat are “especially damaging” to health.

By the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), raw seafood virtually disappeared from Chinese tables, except in the south. There were records of people in Guangdong still eating raw fish slices.

Customers eating sushi at a restaurant in Causeway Bay before Hong Kong’s ban on imports of seafood from 10 Japanese provinces came into effect. Beijing has imposed a total ban on the import of aquatic products from Japan. Photo: Yik Yeung-man

When I was a child, my Cantonese-speaking mother took us to eateries in Singapore’s Chinatown that served congee and raw slices of freshwater fish, which you ate as they were, or dipped into the hot rice gruel to scald them a little.

I usually did the former, not realising I was playing Russian roulette with parasitic and bacterial infection.

Raw freshwater fish are no longer allowed to be served in Singapore.

Sushi for sale in a supermarket in Hong Kong. Given how many contaminants there are in seafood generally, it may be wise to consume less of it. Photo: Sam Tsang
While the concerns about a spike in radiation levels of seafood following the Fukushima water discharge may or may not be misguided, there’re also parasites, bacteria, heavy metals and microplastics to consider the next time you’re having a seafood dinner.

So it’s probably not a bad idea to reduce our seafood consumption, for the sake of both our own health and the well-being of the world’s oceans.


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