Eating fugu, Japanese puffer fish, has been called the gastronomic equivalent of playing Russian roulette. A powerful poison is found in the fugu’s ovaries, kidneys, skin, eyes, liver and intestines. It is one of the most toxic substances known, hundreds of times more poisonous than strychnine or cyanide and so deadly that just of trace of it can kill an adult man in minutes.
Despite all this fugu is popular dish. Japanese eat 10,000 tons of fugu a year. There are 80,000 fugu chefs in Osaka alone. Fugu is considered a winter delicacy, typically eaten in December and January. Blowfish is also known as puffer fish and globefish. The fish of choice in Japan is torafugu, a species that is found in Japanese waters. The best fugu is said to come from Shimonoseki. Even though fugu is very poplar in Osaka, Tokyo is the nation’s largest consumption center of the fish. The word “fugu” is made of two Chinese characters meaning “river” and “pig.”
The role of the Fugu chef is not to eliminate the toxin altogether, but to reduce it, to the extent that the diner experiences effects of mild intoxication, including waves of euphoria and tingling sensations.
Strict fishing regulations are now in place to protect fugu populations from depletion. Most fugu are now harvested in the spring during the spawning season and then farmed in floating cages in the Pacific Ocean. The largest wholesale fugu market in Japan is in Shimonoseki.
Fugu prices rise in autumn and peak in winter, the best season, because they fatten to survive the cold. Live fish arrive at a restaurant, surviving in a large tank, usually prominently displayed. Prepared fugu is also often available in grocery stores, which must display official license documents. Whole fish may not be sold to the general public.
Since 1958, fugu chefs must earn a license to prepare and sell fugu to the public. This involves a two- or three-year apprenticeship. The licensing examination process consists of a written test, a fish-identification test, and a practical test, preparing and eating the fish. Only about 35 percent of the applicants pass. Small miscalculations result in failure or, in rare cases, death.
A dish of fugu typically costs between ¥2,000 (approx. US$20) and ¥5,000 (approx. US$50); a full-course fugu meal (usually eight servings) can cost ¥10,000–20,000 (approx. US$100–200). The expense encourages chefs to slice the fish very carefully to obtain the largest possible amount of meat. The special knife, called “fugu hiki”, is usually stored separately from other knives.