Posted by Remo Giuffré on
The Japanese delicacy fugu, or blowfish, is so poisonous that the smallest mistake in its preparation could be fatal. The fish’s liver is filled with a chemical known as tetrodotoxin, an extremely deadly compound vastly more potent than cyanide. It’s believed that a single blowfish has the toxic capability to kill 30 humans. Death usually comes from respiratory failure between 30 minutes and 4 hours after eating the poisonous fish and there is no known antidote. Yikes.
Fugu preparation is an art in itself. Fugu chefs consider themselves the elite of Japan's highly competitive culinary world. Training lasts at least two years and then there is a practical test to get a fugu chef’s licence issued by the relevant city government. A third of examinees fail each test.
Fugu is an expensive delicacy in Japan and the restaurants that serve it are among the finest in the country. People are willing to pay for the assurance of the fugu chef licence mounted on the restaurant wall.
In the preparation, the first thing that happens to the typically live fugu, after killing it with a blunt blow to the head, is the removal of the brain and eyes. The skin, greenish and mottled, is then removed, along with the guts. Each component is carefully placed in a metal tray marked "non-edible" and later returned to the fish market for disposal and incineration.
Special knives are used with blades tempered by a swordsmith to a keen edge. The sharper the knife the thinner the fugu sashimi, traditionally arranged as petals in the shape of a chrysanthemum flower, on a plate that often bears a pattern thereby revealing the transparency of the fish to maximum effect.
Other parts of the fish are cooked in various ways e.g. shabu-shabu or fugu stew.
A single mistake could mean death for a customer. 23 people have died in Japan after eating fugu since 2000, according to government figures. Most of the victims are anglers who rashly try to prepare their catch at home.
For the Japanese, the flavour and texture of fugu is the thing that brings them back; but for tourists, playing the equivalent of Russian roulette at the dinner table is partly the attraction of the dish.
Although likely apocryphal, it has also been said that some chefs will intentionally leave a trace of the toxin in the flesh, just enough to bring a tingling to the lips, a cautionary reminder of our transience on earth.
James Bond nearly dies a fugu death at the end of Ian Fleming’s 1957 novel “From Russia With Love”, when it’s administered by a kick from a boot with a hidden blade and he crumples to the floor. In “Dr. No”, published the following year, it’s determined that the mysterious substance was “fugu poison”.
The real-life British explorer Captain James Cook had a more direct encounter with the fish in 1774 while trawling the South Pacific, sampling the liver and roe of a recent catch and then waking in the middle of the night to a violent prickling and sense of disembodiment in which “a quart pot full of water and a feather was the same in my hand,” for which only “a vomit and after that a sweat” offered reprieve.
All eating is an act of trust. When you eat fugu, it’s just that the stakes are higher.
PS: Extra interested in the process? Watch this behind-the-scenes video taken in January 2023 at at Koshiji, a Japanese Fugu restaurant in Tokyo.
“The Year of Eating Dangerously: A Global Adventure in Search of Culinary Extremes,” book by Tom Parker Bowles
1. Fugu Photograph: Sinopix/Rex Features for The Guardian
2. Torafugu for sale to master fugu chefs at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo
3. Plate of fugu sashimi. Image Credit: Suguri F at Japanese Wikipedia
5. Bokguk (pufferfish soup). Flickr mage from creepyblues
6. Official fugu preparation license issued by the Governor of Tokyo
7. "Non-edible" metal tray. Still from Video: "Behind the Counter at a local Japanese Poisonous Puffer Fish Fugu Restaurant" by Paolo from Tokyo
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