It may just be Japan’s most celebrated and notorious dish. In the country’s capital, fugu or pufferfish is a seasonal delicacy. Highly sought after in winter when fugu are at their plumpest, Tokyo’s fugu restaurants proudly display the latest bulbous catch in highly-visible tanks.
So, what’s so good about fugu? Well, much of the fascination must be credited to the fact that eating the prized fish can kill you. The liver, ovaries and skin, among others, can contain lethal amounts of tetrodotoxin, a type of neurotoxin. While the dish is served minus the potentially deadly internal organs, much care must be taken to ensure that these parts are sufficiently removed and that they do not contaminate the meat. Nationwide, there were 338 food poisoning cases in Japan related to fugu consumption from 2000-2009 that killed 23 people. However, there have been just seven cases in Tokyo over the past decade, with only one occurring at a restaurant. The only fatality was that of a man who caught and cooked the fish himself.
Japan Fun Fact: For his protection, fugu is the only food the Japanese Emperor is forbidden to eat.
Death by fugu poisoning is particularly unpleasant. Symptoms include dizziness, weakness, headache, nausea and difficulty breathing. The victim remains fully conscious while their body shuts down from the inside, the toxin paralyzing the muscles to the point that the victim cannot move, speak or respond, and eventually causing death by asphyxiation. There is no known antidote. Treatment involves supporting the victim’s respiratory and circulatory systems while the toxin is excreted from the body. In some regions of Japan, it is usual practice to wait three days before proceeding with funeral arrangements as in some cases the victim’s paralysis has masked any signs of life and they have woken right before their own cremation!
Yet it is the tingling sensation fugu leaves on one’s lips thanks to small doses of the toxin left deliberately behind by the nation’s best chefs, that has thrill-seeking diners lining up for more. In fact, some even request to be served the potentially deadly internal organs. The liver is considered the most delicious part but is the most toxic. It was banned for sale in 1984 but eating it at restaurants is not unheard of in cases where customers have demanded it.
Because of the threat to human health and safety, each prefecture has an ordinance on the handling of fugu. In Tokyo, considered to have some of the strictest regulations, only certified chefs who have undergone at least two years of training at fugu restaurants may sit the extremely difficult practical and theoretical examinations to obtain certification to prepare and serve the fish. This has meant that in Tokyo only restaurants with a certified fugu chef on staff can sell fugu dishes.
This ordinance was enacted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 1949 in response to numerous fugu poisoning deaths during post-WWII food shortages, mostly as a result of people catching their own pufferfish and cooking them without the necessary knowledge to do so safely.
The move was supported by the fugu restaurant industry who wanted fugu to be seen as a safe food to eat. The tight regulations helped to protect the industry in many ways, and allowed fugu to keep its prized elusiveness and prices high. However, as there are no restrictions on the sale of migaki fugu (that is, fugu with the poisonous parts removed) in 29 prefectures, it has become easy for Tokyo residents to buy the fish over the Internet, making the regulations somewhat outdated.
A decline in fugu poisoning incidents in the capital in recent years and an increased online presence have paved the way for a relaxation of laws regarding the sale of fugu, bringing Tokyo law more in line with current practice across the country.
As of October 2012, shops and restaurants that do not have certified fugu chefs on staff, can buy migaki fugu prepared by said chefs and sell it to the public. Sellers must label their products as having “venomous parts removed” while buyers must only purchase fugu products with this label and keep records of where they buy the fish. Shops and restaurants without a certified fugu chef must display a sign that states they only sell certified migaki fugu and are required to report to the metropolitan government.
The planned deregulation of fugu sales in Tokyo, now law, as of October 2012. Picture source: The Daily Yomiuri Online 2012
With the new law in its infancy, it remains to be seen what impact the changes will have on the industry and dining choices. Some fugu restaurants have raised concerns about safety and the potential for illegal trade of the fish. However, most have backed the move, saying that it is unlikely to cause an increase in fugu poisoning cases and expanding the public’s accessibility to fugu will give more people the opportunity to eat it, therefore increasing its popularity and normalizing it as a part of everyday Japanese cuisine.
A fugu dinner course comprising of fugu sashimi, fugu stew and other pufferfish cuisine, will typically set you back ¥5000-¥30,000 (about US $60-$360).
What do you think about Tokyo’s new law? Have you every tried fugu or, if not, would you?