Blow fish, globe fish, puffer fish, fugu--whatever you want to call it, it’s a killer. Each fish contains enough poison to kill thirty people--tetrodotoxin it’s called, and it is one of the most violent poisons in nature. The deadly poison is in the fish’s organs, especially the liver. It’s over 1200 times deadlier than cyanide and yet ten thousand tons of these ugly, puffed up fish are eaten each year in Japan. And what’s more, there isn’t even a known antidote. So within 4-6 hours of chomping away on your feast of fugu, paralysis sets in as the poison kills your nerve tissue, leading to asphyxiation. Nice.
So just why would you want to play a game of "Japanese" roulette over dinner? It is said that fugu has a subtle and elegant flavor, but then others say it’s rather bland, and when it can cost up to $500 a dish there must be something going for it. The secret seems to be in its very careful preparation, leaving just enough of the poison in the dish to bestow a diminutive tingle in the mouth and a slight numbing of the lips.
It is this careful preparation that we are paying for. In 1958, after a particularly bad year for fugu fatalities, it was decided that chefs were to be specially trained and restaurants to hold licenses before they could prepare or sell the fish. Fugu chefs have to take written and practical tests, including eating what they have prepared. Talk of having to be sure of yourself.
But now there are Japanese fish farmers who are farming fugu, and by placing restrictions on the fish’s diet, which means not letting them eat plankton, fugu become no longer poisonous. But where’s the fun in that?
So if you feel ready to take on the extreme sport that is fugu, as over ten percent sold is still the wild fugu, you’ll need to find yourself a fugu ryotei, a licensed restaurant, and you’ll do this by looking outside the premises for a lantern hanging up which is made from fugu skin. When you go inside you will find tanks of live fugu with their mouths stitched up to stop them from fighting.
But you won’t find the Japanese emperor in there, because he’s banned from eating it.