Fugu


Fugu is a fish eaten in Japan.

There are actually 25 different species of Fugu, but the one consumed and referred to as Fugu in English is called "Torafugu" in Japanese (aka "Tiger Blowfish" in English.)

Fugu live in the north-west Pacific Ocean, particularly the sea of Japan. They live in salt water, but can also survive in brackish or fresh water. They have sharp teeth and eat algae, mollusks, and crustaceans. The fish have no scales on its skin. When threatened, they inflate themselves to make themselves look very big. They do this by filling up their stomach up with water (or air, when out of the water.)

They lay eggs from March to May, around 65 feet (20 metres) deep, attached to rocks.

Winter considered the best time for them, as their bodies will have fattened up. Fugu are shipped live to restaurants. When caught and put all together, they will often attack each other, so their mouths are often sewn up.

They are very expensive to order in restaurants. But despite their firm, white flesh, some say the taste of Fugu is so bland and tasteless that it's not worth the expense or the risk. Risk?

Fugu are very toxic, and have in them a poison 1,200 times more dangerous than cyanide. The poison in 1 fish is enough to send 30 people up to the great fish tank in the sky. The poison, "tetrodotoxin" (aka "anhydrotetrodotoxin 4-epitetrodotoxin"), is in all of its internal organs, but particularly in its liver, ovaries and testicles, as well as in its skin. (Some sources quote Keizo Muraki, chief of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's Milk, Meat and Seafood Public Health Bureau as saying, "In the tora fugu, or tiger blowfish, which is the most popular and most expensive type, the meat, skin and testes are safe to eat..") Trace amounts of the poison are in its muscles and blood. Consumption of the poison parts is forbidden by law. The innards from the fish have to be treated as hazardous waste, put into locked barrels and then later burned. This law was passed after some homeless people died from eating fugu out of a waste bin. Nevertheless, some try to eat the liver anyway, gambling that the "high" from the poison won't be so high as to turn them into an angel.

The fish itself is immune to the poison. Some Fugu have more poison in them than others. The poison may come from their food. The fish eats things which have been colonized by a bacteria called "Pseudomonas", creatures such as starfish and shellfish. The bacteria then colonizes the fish, and generates the poison in the fish. It appears that Fugu bred in fish farms don't become toxic until they are given food with the bacteria in it. In research stating in 2001 led by Osamu Arakawa and Tamao Noguchi, scientists at Nagasaki University managed to raise 4,800 Torafugu that were non-toxic. They constructed seven caged fish farms suspended at least 30 feet (10 metres) from the sea floor, to help keep them away from their usual food. They fed them instead food such as horse mackerel, krill, etc. All fish tested were negative for the toxin. A Japanese Health Ministry official, Masanori Imagawa, acknowledged their findings, but cautioned "it does not immediately mean we can guarantee food safety. When it comes to Fugu, we can't afford any mistakes." [1] They want to see the test repeated in other fish farms, to see if it really is the diet that made the difference. The Health Ministry is also concerned about how to distinguish the farmed kind from the caught kind on the market.

Cooking won't get rid of the poison. When poisoned, you stay fully conscious, but your muscles seize up and your lungs lose the ability to breathe. There is no antidote as of 2006. The only medical treatment is to try to keep the victim breathing and his or her blood circulating until the poison wears off.

The Japanese Health Ministry says that in 2002, six people died from eating the fish, and in 2003, three people died (those three all prepared it themselves at home.)

Since 1958, only specially licenced people are allowed to prepare the fish for public consumption. In that year, 176 people died from eating it. Fugu chefs must undergo an apprenticeship of 2 to 3 years, then pass written and practical tests. Only 1/3 of the people who try the test pass it. They use special Fugu Hiki knives that must be kept separate from other kitchen equipment. Many restaurants specialize in Fugu.

1/3 of people who try to prepare the fish at home die.

The Emperor of Japan is forbidden to consume it.

In Tokyo, you can buy Fugu for home consumption already prepared at the Tsukiji fish market. It can also be bought prepared at grocery stores, which have to display their licences to sell it.

Fugu served in North America has a good chance of being farmed Fugu; it is usually prepared in Japan and then shipped over.

Despite the risk, or perhaps because of it, the fish is in such high demand that fishing for it is now regulated to protect the stocks. Fugu sells for as much as US $130 to $250 a kg (2004 prices.) The price of a single dish with some Fugu in it in a restaurant ranges from 20 to 50 US dollars (2005 prices.)

Some chefs deliberately prepare Fugu so that there will be a trace amount of poison, which connoisseurs love because it gives a tingly then numb sensation in their mouths. The challenge is to get the greatest amount off meat off this expensive fish while keeping your customers alive enough to come back and order it again.

Fugu can be used in sashimi, hot pots, soups (fugu chiri), stews, rice porridge (fugu ojiya), or even deep fried. When prepared as sashimi, it is served sliced so thinly that you can see beneath the slices the pattern of the plate it's arranged on in a chrysanthemum-like pattern (it's perhaps only a coincidence that in Japan the chrysanthemum is a funeral flower.) The plate often has a beautiful scenery pattern on it, but some chefs prefer plainer plates. This is called "Fugusashi." It is served with garnishes such as grated daikon and ponzu sauce.

Another reason to slice it thinly is that it's not very tender. If it were sliced thickly, it would be very chewy. It is softer when cooked.

An entire Fugu meal has some Fugu in every dish served, even in the sake that is drunk.

Osaka has a Fugu museum.

History Notes

From the 1600 to 1800s it was prohibited to eat Fugu. Methods to eat it safely (or with less risk) were developed in western Japan.


In 1975, the Japanese actor Mitsugoro Bando VIII died from eating four portions of fugu liver at a restaurant in Kyoto. He was given a portion of liver and ate not only his but that of his table mates as well. The chef who agreed to let them have it had his licence taken away.

Language Notes

Fugu means "river pig."

Acknowlegements