Posted by: oysterculture | February 1, 2009

Risky Business that Fugu

Fugu sashimi (photo from Wikipedia)

Fugu sashimi (photo from Wikipedia)

Fugu fish eating can be dangerous business, but that does not stop it from being a national pastime.  Just this past week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported another case of poisoning.  The poison, tetrodotoxin is 100 times more powerful the potassium cyanide – Agatha Christie eat your heart out.  No antidote exists for the powerful neurotoxins this fish contains.   The only method used to treat the victims is to support the respiratory and circulatory systems while the poison wears off.  If the victim can live beyond the first 24 hours, chances are good for a recovery.

Why risk it?  I’ve been trying to understand myself, but apparently its for the risk lovers among us who live on the edge with the knowledge that if the chef screwed up, its lights out.  From what I understand, the taste alone is not enough to enduce this sort of daring do.  The tastiest, and most poisonous part of the fish is the liver, although you will not find the liver served at restaurants today as it has been illegal to serve it since 1984.   

The toxin is not in the meat itself, but in the fish’s organs, so the chef must not nick any of those lethal innards in creating his delicacies.  Some diners claim to experience a slight numbing of their lips, and even a feeling of euphoria as a result of the meal.  I’d feel euphoric too if I just ate something that could have killed me, but lived to see another day.

Fugu restaurant (photo from NYMag)

Fugu restaurant (photo from NYMag)

Only one type of knife is legally used in the making of fugu sashimi called the fugu hiki, which translates to the puffer fish-puller.  This knife must be stored separate from the chefs other knifes to avoid possible cross contamination.

As you might imagine, not just anyone makes fugu sashimi, a chef must be licensed and apprenticed for three years.  After completing his apprenticeship, he must take a rigorous exam where the pass rate is less than 30%.  Most deaths are fisherman who figure that they can make the sashmi at home rather than pay for the expensive meal which can run up to $200 US . 

Cute little devil (picture from the

Cute little devil (picture from the

In addition to the sashimi, the fugu is also served as chirinabe and the fins are toasted with hot sake poured over them.  This sake is commonly drunk as an appertif. 
Despite the obvious drawbacks, 10,000 tons of fugu are consumed in Japan each year, with most fish coming from Yamaguchi.  You can find puffer fish in some restaurants in the United States, mostly around New York City.  Licensed chefs in Japan have removed the poisonous bits before shipping them to the United States. 

Any takers on fugu sashimi?  I might try, but I suspect it would depend on the amount of sake consumed ahead of time.

This post is the first in a series called, Food that makes you say – “huh”



  1. Don’t think I’ll be taking this risk any time soon. Though judgement is often clouded when sake is involved. There are some die-hard (poor choice of words?) sushi fans… I read in the New Yorker many years ago about how some sushi fans go diving and enjoy the fish in the water…the freshest sushi I suppose.

  2. Not much sake is required for me. I have a friend, Japanese, that ate a fugu meal and really enjoyed it. I’m always intrigued at how people started to eat foods that otherwise would kill or maim them.

  3. It must be really delicious if people still try it and know that it may be poisonous. Do you know anyone that actually tried it?

  4. Hi 5 Star, From what I read, and was told by people that have eaten fugu, its not THAT delicious – the attraction is definitely the thrill seeking component. My friend who had a complete fugu meal, sake and all on a recent trip to Japan, and vouches for the lip numbing experience.

  5. I did write a posting about eating fugu in Shizuoka some time ago. You are tempting me to re-write it with a reference to your posting!
    In Shizuoka we just eat it. It is only some sado-masochists who make a whole dish of it (sorry for the poor joke!).
    I personally love it deep-fried or served as sushi with its liver on top!
    The skin is great grilled, too!
    Great posting as usual!
    Cheers, Robert-Gilles

  6. I’ll have to find your original post. Most of what I found seemed to cover the same territory, and it is an interesting topic. I thought I’d touch on foods that at first do not make sense to be added to our dining selection.

    Given evolution, and natural selection, if we discovered eating fugu would kill us and fast, it doesn’t make sense we would spend time determing what of the fugu was edible and risking our lives in the process. Goes against the natural instict of survival, which is why I find it curious that the sado-nasochist tendencies, that you mention, come to play.

  7. Japan, for all my love for it, is probably the most sado-masochist world you could expect (after Germany maybe! LOL)!
    As for the article on Fugu, here you are (it is a short one!):

  8. […] people to look at jars hidden for years in their cellars, maggoty cheese, stinging nettles, or poisionous fish and think – "I really must taste that"?  I confess, if I were in their shoes, this world would […]

  9. […] people to look at jars hidden for years in their cellars, maggoty cheese, stinging nettles, or poisionous fish and think – "I really must taste that"?  I confess, if I were in their shoes, this world would […]

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