Fugu fish may just be Japan's most notorious dish. In the country's capital, fugu, also known as Japanese puffer fish, blowfish or globe fish, 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, later to be served up as fugu sushi, sashimi or in hot pots.
So, what's so good about fugu? Well, much of the fascination must be credited to the fact that eating the prized fugu fish can kill you. Here's what you need to know about fugu poison and eating Japanese puffer fish.
Fugu poisoning and fugu fish deaths
The liver, ovaries and skin, among other parts in Japanese puffer fish can contain lethal amounts of tetrodotoxin, a type of neurotoxin. Fugu poison is several hundred times more toxic than cyanide, with just a sliver of the poisonous parts enough to cause a horrendous and untimely death.
While the dish is served minus the potentially deadly organs, much care must be taken to ensure that these parts are sufficiently removed and that they do not contaminate the meat.
Nationwide, there are about 20-40 cases of fugu poisoning a year, with between 0-3 deaths. Most deaths occur as a result of people catching and trying to prepare the fish themselves or when diners have demanded to be served the poisonous (and apparently delicious) liver. It sounds crazy, because it is!
Japan Fun Fact: For his protection, fugu is the only food the Japanese Emperor is forbidden to eat.
It should also be said that there are over 100 different varieties of puffer fish, each with varying degrees of lethality and poisonous parts. Therefore a thorough understanding of the varieties and their anatomies is paramount for any fugu chef.
What happens if you consume fugu poison?
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!
Does fugu taste that good? Why do people eat fugu in Japan?
Honestly, I think the taste of fugu is extremely bland. I've heard some Japanese people refer to it as “delicate”. It doesn't taste very “fishy” I'll give it that, but much of the flavor comes from the broth and dipping sauces, rather than the fish itself.
Which begs the question, why eat it at all when there are plenty of non-toxic fish to enjoy? Well, it's expensive and viewed as a delicacy, so there's the fine dining aspect, and then add to that the “thrill” of flirting with danger, and it seems humans just can't help themselves.
Some people even deliberately eat the highly toxic internal organs, particularly the liver, which is viewed as a delicacy. As you can imagine, that often doesn't end well. The liver was banned for sale in 1984 but eating it at restaurants is not unheard of in cases where customers have demanded it.
Fugu hasn't always been a fine dining dish, however. In fact, most of the deaths have historically come from fishermen and their families, after catching the fish and trying to prepare it themselves, often because of food shortages. These days similar incidents still happen, but mostly because people see it as a chance to try it at home without the high-ticket fugu price at restaurants.
It should come as no surprise that because of the threat to human health and safety, each prefecture has an ordinance on the handling of fugu and fugu preparation.
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 Japanese puffer fish dishes. At least that is how it used to be.
This two-year training 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 Japanese puffer fish 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 were no restrictions on the sale of migaki fugu (that is, fugu with the poisonous parts removed) in 29 prefectures, it had become easy for Tokyo residents to buy the fish over the Internet, making the regulations somewhat outdated.
An increased online presence and a decline in fugu poisoning incidents in the capital in recent years (Tokyo only had 7 cases over a period of a decade, with only one at a restaurant, and the only fatality that of a man who caught and cooked the fish himself), 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.
Since October 2012, shops and restaurants that do not have certified fugu chefs on staff, have been able to 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.
Ways Japanese puffer fish can be eaten
Fugu can be eaten in numerous ways, and at restaurants is usually presented as a course meal.
Fugu sashimi, or raw, is one of the most common ways to eat Japanese puffer fish. You might see it on fugu menus as “fugusashi” or “tessa”.
At fugu restaurants, fugu sashimi is usually cut razor thin and then arranged in a flower formation for presentation, specifically in the shape of a chrysanthemum. It's a little eerie when you think about it because the chrysanthemum symbolizes death in Japan and is often used at funerals, so never give them as a gift!
The raw fugu fish can then be dipped into a dipping sauce such as shoyu (soy sauce). Although ponzu, a delicious citrus based sauce, is often used with fugu, as well as many other Japanese dishes.
Fugu no tataki
Tataki is a Japanese cooking technique that involves searing the outside of a piece of meat or fish, so that only the very outside is cooked, while the inside remains raw.
The meat is then cut into slices. In the case of fugu no tataki, the slices are generally thicker than those presented as sashimi.
You may know the term karaage in reference to deep-fried chicken. But karaage is actually another Japanese cooking technique and simply refers to foods (usually meat or fish) being lightly coated in flour or starch and fried in oil.
This is perhaps deemed one of the best introductory options for first-timers, as the taste and cooking method is more familiar.
Fugu may also be fried in a tempura batter, made of flour, egg and water, giving it a lighter, crispier exterior.
Sumibiyaki refers to another Japanese cooking technique, meaning char-grilled.
Cooking fugu on a grill over a charcoal flame gives the fish a smoky flavor. Sumibiyaki fugu may be added to the grill as-is or brushed with a sauce to enhance flavor.
Shirako is the Japanese term for milt or the male fish genitalia containing sperm. Fugu shirako with its creamy consistency is considered to be one of the most delectable parts for fugu fish connoisseurs.
Shirako of cod, anko, salmon and squid is also commonly eaten in Japan.
Fugu shirako may be eaten several ways, such as coated in a light tempura batter and fried, eaten raw with ponzu and wasabi, or added to the nabe hot pot.
Fugu Nabe or Tecchiri
Being a winter delicacy, fugu is widely used in nabe or hot pot, a popular dish during the colder months in Japan. Tecchiri, or fugu chirinabe, is the name given to a type of nabe that uses fugu as the feature ingredient.
The nabe pot is placed on a small gas cooker on the table, into which you boil a dashi broth and add your ingredients – such as add meat, vegetables, tofu and oden. The ingredients simmer away and stay hot during the meal. In fugu nabe, the broth is what gives the fish most of its flavor.
Fugu shabu shabu is another option for fugu hot pot dining. In shabu shabu, the diner takes raw ingredients and moves them back and forth in the hot broth with their chopsticks to cook them to their liking.
Fugu ojiya is the name of a variety of zosui, or Japanese rice porridge, with fugu as the main attraction.
Zosui is a common way to finish up the broth left in the nabe pot at the end of a meal. Cooked rice is added, allowing the rich dashi, now infused with the flavor of the ingredients cooked in it, in this case fugu, to permeate the rice.
It's a great way to use up what would otherwise be wasted broth, and also ensures that anyone who is still hungry has the opportunity to fill their stomachs before the end of the meal.
Some varieties of fugu are seemingly low-tox enough for the skin to be consumed too. Fugu skin is often eaten on its own as a side dish. It is cut into strips that can almost appear like glass-noodles or jelly-like in the bowl.
It can be eaten various ways – raw as sashimi, boiled, grilled or deep-fried. The deep-fried version called fugu kawa senbei or ‘fugu skin crackers', are crispy in texture and are said to be a great drinking snack, pairing well with cold beer.
Hirezake (fugu sake)
If you're wanting to not only eat fugu, but drink it too, you can try a very unique beverage called hirezake.
Hirezake or ‘fin sake' is prepared by burning a fugu fin over charcoal and then placing it into a cup of warmed sake known as kanzake. A lid is then placed over the cup and left to steep for a few minutes, allowing the flavor of the chargrilled fugu fin to seap into the sake.
Fugu fin apparently started being added to sake after WWII, when there was a lot of poor-quality sake on the market. Fugu fin was used to mask the inferior quality with its smoky and savory flavor, creating an interesting contrast between the smokiness of the fugu fin and the crispness of the sake. Nowadays hirezake can still be found in select bars and restaurants during winter, and I once had the opportunity to try it.
It was one of those unassuming places that only locals frequent, and where regular patrons call out their drink and dish orders as they want them directly to the chefs behind the counter. Hirezake wasn't on the menu, but my Japanese friend knew to ask for it. It really packed a punch and warmed the cheeks. I can tell you that was probably the closest I have been to drunk ever.
Because migaki fugu can now be bought and sold to the public in Tokyo (and most other prefectures) without a trained fugu chef on staff, it has opened up the opportunity for sushi train or conveyer belt sushi restaurants to offer fugu sushi on their menus. That being said, in 10 years in Japan, we never saw it.
Fugu sushi is a slice of raw or cooked fugu atop sushi rice. To eat, it is picked up with chopsticks and the fish is gently tilted into a dipping sauce before consuming. There may also be wasabi placed under the fish, for an extra kick.
The planned deregulation of fugu sales in Tokyo, now law, as of October 2012. Picture source: The Daily Yomiuri Online 2012
Fugu fish at the supermarket
In prefectures where migaki fugu may be bought and sold without a special license, it's possible to find fugu at the supermarket.
While generally safe, as they are prepared by licensed chefs, like with anything there is the potential for error. In 2018, five packages of fugu were accidentally sold by a supermarket in the city of Gamagori in Central Japan without the deadly livers removed.
The error was only discovered when one of the purchasers became suspicious of a liver-like part in the packaging and took it to a health center for checking. The city subsequently engaged the public speaker system, usually only used in emergencies such as large earthquakes, to warn the public. Two of the four other missing packs were subsequently returned and two remained unaccounted for. I wonder if they ever found out what happened to them?
Buying fugu online
When we first visited Japan in 2006, we expressed interest in trying fugu to our Tokyo homestay family and asked them if they could help us find a place to try it.
The next week, there was a knock on the door from a deliveryman, who handed over a non-descript stryofoam cooler box of migaki fugu bought from the Internet! We were so shocked that you could buy a toxic fish, albeit with the poisonous parts removed, online. Or even that people bought fresh food like that from the Internet (the world was a very different place back then!).
The fugu had been sent from another prefecture as this was before migaki fugu could be bought directly by the public in Tokyo. Our homestay family had arranged for us to have a special fugu dinner at home. We had it as fugu sashimi, fugu nabe, and had fugu skin too. The taste of the fish itself wasn't anything to write home about but I clearly remember the tingling sensation on my lips. I thought this was normal, but apparently numb lips is actually the first symptom of fugu poisoning!
I have read that some top chefs deliberately leave a trace of poison behind to have this thrilling effect for diners, but I'm not sure if that was the intention in this case or if I'd want Internet fugu to still have traces of poison for fun. But I'm happy to report that we are all alive and well, including their then 6 and 7 year old sons who are now grown adults.
Would I eat fugu again? Probably not. While it is generally very safe, I think I'll stick to fish I actually like to eat and can't potentially kill me. That being said, the Japanese eat 10,000 tonnes of fugu every year, with statisticly very few incidents. In fact, there is virtually zero chance of incident when eaten at a restaurant.
Fugu price – how much does fugu cost?
If you're still intrigued to try it, I'd recommend going to a fugu restaurant with a trained fugu chef, where, as I said, issues are very rare.
Expect to pay between ¥5000-¥30,000 (about US $60-$360) for a fugu dinner course comprising of fugu sashimi, fugu nabe and other puffer fish cuisine.
One of the more affordable options in Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba is Torafugu-tei, a fugu restaurant where you can enjoy a 7-course fugu dinner for around ¥7000 per person (minimum of two people).
Have you every tried fugu or, if not, would you?
Want to read more about special Japanese cuisine? Check out:
Japan's Kobe Beef: What Makes it Special