Fugu (Pufferfish): Japanese Delight or Death Wish?
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Truth or dare is a game that everyone has played at some point in their lives. When it comes to Japanese seafood, the game has taken on a whole new twist. It was as if they learned the truth about the pufferfish’s poisonous nature and decided to dare nature itself and consume it. Whatever the reason for its origin, the fact remains that the Japanese have conquered a fish whose toxin is deadlier than cyanide. They are now daring the rest of the world to follow suit and play Russian roulette at the dining table by eating it, as there is no antidote to the toxin.

So, if you’re up to the challenge of trying out Fugu (the Japanese name for pufferfish), then you should read this introductory guide. It will help you understand the fish and how to best consume it without having adverse effects, i.e., without adding to the six deaths a year statistic from its consumption (quick tip: leave its cooking to the experts if you want to live).

The pufferfish is a type of fish that has some unique characteristics. The most obvious one is its ability to produce tetrodotoxin, a substance that is 100 times more venomous than the one produced by the Black Widow Spider and 1000 times deadlier than cyanide, making it the most poisonous fish in the world. But this fish is harmless (unless consumed, that is), as the toxin exists on the skin, liver, glands, and intestine. Eating the fish without complete removal of this toxin is fatal.

Besides that, these fish also have another unique self-defense mechanism. When threatened, they swallow large quantities of water and grow three to four times their regular size to intimidate a predator into scaring it away. Along with that, these fish have no scales but are instead covered in spines that extend out when in their puffed state. 

There are over 200 species of them, and they can be found both in freshwater and saltwater environments. They have four strong teeth that are fused to form a strong beak, and they regenerate indefinitely. The pufferfish use it to crack open mollusk shells, which form their main diet. It’s the bacteria present in those mollusks, along with some in the other invertebrates that these fish consume, that are behind the production of the deadly toxin.

The culinary mastery behind fugu 

Fugu has been consumed for centuries in Japan, particularly in its southern Setouchi region. It has Japan’s only open fugu market in the seaside town of Shimonoseki, along with the oldest fugu restaurants. It is important to note that not everyone can prepare a Fugu dish due to the high number of deaths that have occurred from them in the past. A rule has been instituted that only specially trained chefs with over three years of experience in handling the fish, i.e., removing its toxin, can prepare fugu dishes after obtaining a license. It proves that they are skilled at the toxin removal procedure, called Migaki. Therefore, you should only visit verified places to consume it.

Shimonoseki has one of the oldest and most popular fugu restaurants, Shunpanro. It served fugu to the late Japanese Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi in 1888. The lunch featured a variety of fugu avatars, including sashimi, kara-age, and even the traditional drink Sake, which the fin was dipped in. It was this lunch that made the dishes and the restaurant famous, and they have continued to offer the same quality and variety since.

For those who prefer a milder flavor, Sashimi offers the fish in congee rice porridge, while Kara-age is a deep-fried version of the fish. For the truly adventurous bunch, there’s shirako, which is the soft roe or testes of the fish.

Major centers have three-star Michelin restaurants, like Tokyo’s Usuki Fugu Yamadaya, where it can cost over US$200 per person. Multi-chain restaurants like Torafugu Tei offer the same at a lower price due to the self-farming of fugu. But for a true blast from the past, it is Shimonosek’s Haedomari market that one needs to visit, as it is where it began. There is even a museum full of statues of the different kinds of fugu that can be found there.

The pufferfish may produce a deadly toxin, but its consumption has produced a story that has added to the rich culinary culture of Japan, especially in Shimonoseki town. It gave life to that town and to the many taste buds that dared to accept the challenge of trying the many fugu dishes made there and elsewhere in the country. Every bite of a fugu dish helps you consume a wonder of the seas and that of human ingenuity, along with the thrill of the associated risks that are not for the faint-hearted.