The Japanese pufferfish with a license to kill
Haddock schmaddock—if your fish dish doesn’t contain toxic levels of poison, it’s old hat. Fish aficionados will be familiar with the concept of eating fugu, but if you’re not, let us explain…
Fugu refers to the highly poisonous blowfish, served as a gelatinous, thinly sliced delicacy in Japan. Tora-fugu (found in Japanese waters and the most toxic) is the type most commonly referred to: it’s very rare, it’s very expensive, and it’s very dangerous.
The organs—especially the liver and the female eggs—contain tetrodotoxin (a potent neurotoxin), which is reportedly at least 1,000 times more poisonous than cyanide. Trained and certified chefs usually have to remove 11 parts of the fish, including the skeleton, skin, ovaries, intestines, and liver. One wrong cut could mean fatal poisoning, which begins as numbness and tingling in the mouth, followed by trouble breathing, paralysis, and death. No known antidote remains.
Sound tasty? The Japanese certainly think so—they eat 10,000 tons of the stuff every year. Unfortunately, reports suggest the taste isn’t exactly to die for: apparently the taste is subtle, almost flavourless, so don’t expect to be dizzied into a state of culinary rapture. It appears the appeal lies in the danger factor, something akin to swimming with sharks or juggling fire-sticks. Many fugu fans claim to get a kick out of the tingling in the lips which occurs as a result of the slight traces of poison left over during preparation.
Fugu chefs must receive a local government-sanctioned license. In order to be a licensed fugu chef, Tokyo requires a three-year apprenticeship, intensive courses, a gruelling written exam and a practical test during which you must demonstrate skill in preparing the fugu. Earlier this year, Tokyo slackened its laws to allow restaurants which don’t have a certified fugu chef on the premises to serve fugu which has already had its poisonous body parts removed (called migaki fugu). Other prefectures, such as Kyushu, are less strict, allowing Japanese citizens to purchase the fish over the internet.
1 gram of fugu poison is enough to kill 500 people. If you dare to prepare your own or buy from an unlicensed source, you could find yourself in very hot water indeed. About 20 people in Japan every year suffer from fugu poisoning and an unlucky few die, usually after respiratory failure. Research is now being conducted into the uses of fugu toxin as a painkiller so these troublesome fishies can do some good, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
If eating toxic fugu makes you feel a little green around the gills, don’t worry, there’s plenty more fish in the sea… cod and chips anyone?