This week, a married couple died after eating fresh 河豚 (Fugu / puffer fish), which they caught, prepared and ate. Every year, around 40 people die in Japan due to eating fugu, which is loaded with tetrodotoxin, a “sodium channel blocker” which causes the victims muscles to paralyze, but as it does not cross over from the central nervous system into the blood stream, the person remains fully conscious.
If you are unfortunate enough to be exposed to a lethal dosage of tetrodotoxin, you may suffer from dizziness, nausea, an inability to move or breath and if untreated, death by asphyxiation. Although there is no known cure, people are often put on life-support and aided to breath; so long as the airways are kept open until the toxin wears off, you should expect a full recovery within days.
Of those that are poisoned by eating fugu, the vast majority prepare the meal themselves, without the expertise to avoid the liver, skin or ovaries, the most potent areas of the fish. The liver is said to be the most dangerous part of the fish and is illegal to sell in Japan, but some see this “forbidden fruit” as a true delicacy and this curiosity to try the unobtainable could well be the most common reason that amateur fishermen are killed by fugu every year.
In Japan, fugu is available in many restaurants, as well as fish markets and even supermarkets. Selling the entire fish is illegal and it is often sold or served in wafer thin slices. To be allowed to prepare the fish you must first obtain a license, a law that came into effect in 1958. The license is fittingly difficult to get, and can take between two and three years. The examination includes a written test, a fish identification exam, as well as a practical, which involves the potential fugu chef preparing and eating his/her own meal. Only 35% of entrants pass the exam, so you can rest assured that if you are eating in a certified eatery, the fugu is safe.
To make things even safer, a small city in the Oita Prefecture, Usuki, has developed a “safe” fugu, which is toxin free. It was discovered that fugu became toxic by developing immunity to tetrodotoxin by eating bacteria laden with the poison. By breeding the fish and keeping them away from their poisonous prey, the tetrodotoxin is not given the chance to accumulate.
Although fugu is served in a variety of ways, the most common dish is Usuzukuri, which sees the raw fish cut so thinly, you can see the design of plate it is served on. The fish, the plates and the knife (河豚退き) are all stored separately to air on the side of caution. If sashimi is not your thing, then the fish also comes in stews, with rice and even deep-fried. There are also a variety of different fugu available, but by far the most sought-after (and expensive) is the トラフグ (Tora Fugu / Tiger Puffer Fish) which has tiger-striped like skin.
The fish is available year round, in the autumn and winter months, it fattens up for the cold weather, offering more meat for the chefs to work with. Therefore, the coming months will be the prime time to taste this Japanese delicacy, and so long as you go to a certified restaurant, you have nothing to fear; and don’t worry if your lips go a little numb, it’s all part and parcel of the experience.