Of all the delights on a fine sushi menu, few are so well-known—or so infamous—as fugu. The Japanese name for the blowfish or pufferfish, the fugu hides high levels of an extremely potent poison, called tetrodotoxin, in its skin, ovaries and liver. Its flesh is prized in Japanese and Korean cuisine, considered a true delicacy. A single slip of the knife, however, can have disastrous consequences.
Why so dangerous? Tetrodotoxin is over one thousand times more toxic than cyanide; far less than a milligram can be fatal. The poison acts as a paralytic, causing death from paralysis of the diaphragm and subsequent asphyxiation. As a result, only the most highly trained chefs can prepare fugu. A license requires years of apprenticeship, a written test, and an extensive practical test; more than 70% of aspiring fugu chefs fail the test. Grocery stores in Japan must be licensed to sell fugu, and the fish cannot be sold whole. Indeed, some nations ban the sale, possession, or consumption of fugu altogether.
But one dozen chefs in the United States are licensed to prepare the legendary blowfish—among them Toshio Suzuki
of Sushi Zen
in Manhattan. One of the first Japanese chefs to bring sushi to the United States, Suzuki is classically-trained but forward-thinking, as reflected in his preparation of the fugu. Tiny strips of the blowfish’s outermost edible layer are suspended in a sweet soy-colored gelée—the tougher skin-like bits providing a textural contrast to its jelly encasement. Fugu is also served as paper-thin sashimi, atop sushi, fried, or in a stew—all more traditional preparations. While fugu must be prepared with the utmost of skill, one glance at Suzuki’s impeccable knifework leaves no doubt as to his abilities.
The fugu season is short, and lasts only through the deepest part of winter, as the blowfish are best eaten when fattened to survive the cold waters. But for two months, adventurous diners can experience a brush with death—at the table.