Eating pufferfish, or fugu (河豚 ) in Japanese, may just be one of the thrills in a daring adventure in Japan. The pufferfish has the poison tetrodotoxin, which is a potent neurotoxin with no known antidote, and it can be lethal. The poison is a sodium channel blocker that paralyzes the muscles the entire time a victim stays conscious. The victim cannot breathe and eventually asphyxiates. The only thing that can be done for a victim of pufferfish poison is to be placed in respiratory support until the poison is excreted by the body.
Pufferfish in a tank | iMorpheus
Scientists at Nagasaki University have developed a non-toxic variety of fugu by altering its diet. They successfully raised 4,800 non-toxic fish that taste the same as the fish that carry toxins.
Fugu chefs undergo training
Fugu chefs in Japan have to train for seven to ten years in the art of preparing pufferfish and removing all the toxic parts properly to avoid them from contaminating the meat. Japanese law strictly controls the preparation process of fugu, and only qualified and licensed fugu chefs who have undergone this careful training are allowed to prepare pufferfish.
Fugu is popular as chiri nabe (a hot pot dish) and as sashimi. The liver is said to the most flavorful, but it’s also the most poisonous, and serving or selling it has been prohibited in Japan since 1984. Is pufferfish really that delicious to make people want to risk their lives for a taste of it? Or is it the thrill of knowing just how dangerous this delicacy is that make many want to eat it all the more?
Fugu sashimi | tsuda
Fugu and Japanese culture
A famous Japanese poet, Yosa no Buson, wrote this haiku:
I cannot see her tonight.
I have to give her up
So I will eat fugu.
It sounds similar to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: lovers destined to be apart who would rather succumb to poison rather than live a life without one another. In this case, the pufferfish plays a pivotal role as the antitdote for heartache.
Fugu restaurant in Shibuya | Kojach
The Japanese have been eating fugu for many centuries. The bones of pufferfish were discovered in kaizuka (shell mounds), which yielded a plethora of information on how the Japanese lived as far back as 2,300 years ago during the Jōmon period. The consumption of fugu was banned in Edo and some areas during the Tokugawa shogunate period (1603-1868), but soon after the shogunate’s power weakened, people started eating it again. The Meiji Era (1867-1912) brought forth another ban on the fish in various areas of the country. In current times, the Emperor of Japan is absolutely forbidden to eat fugu.
To eat fugu, or not to eat fugu, that is the question.