Fugu (河豚 or 鰒) is a Japanese sashimi delicacy from a genus of blowfish/pufferfish called Takifugu, or porcupine fish. But, eating this isn’t like other sashimi dishes, it comes with the risk of death. This is due to the fish’s notoriously high concentrations of tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin.
Best served raw, fugu is a dish carefully prepared by a licensed chef. But, one mistake can mean a diner’s ultimate demise. Yet, fugu is one of the most celebrated dishes throughout Japan.
Fugu Sashimi Overview
- What Is the Price Tag to Eat Fugu in Japan?
- How Is Fugu Served In Japan?
- How Does Fugu Kill You?
- Is Fugu Legal in the US?
- What Does Fugu Taste Like?
- Is There an Antidote to Fugu?
What Is the Price Tag to Eat Fugu in Japan?
To eat this porcupine blowfish, costs $20 (¥2,113) to $50 (¥5,777) per serving, with full courses costing up to $200 (¥23,111) or more. Depending on the season, a restaurant can purchase fugu for as little as $8.70 (¥1,000) or as much as $43.50 (¥5,000) per pound.
The average weight of a whole fugu fish is somewhere in the ballpark of four pounds. That means one fish can cost between about $35 (¥4,044) and $175 (¥20,022).
How Is Fugu Served In Japan?
The Japanese have eaten fugu for centuries with found bone remnants that date back to as old as 2,300 years.
There are many ways to prepare this blowfish and all of them fall under the category of delicacies. Fried, smoked and stewed are common but so is serving it atop a salad.
There’s also a method called “milt,” or the grilling of the fish’s soft roe. But, the most popular way to eat it is as sashimi. In other words, this is a method of slicing raw meat into super thin slices.
Many people may recognize this as a menu option for sushi restaurants. While any meat can be sashimi, fugu is the shining star of the show.
Only Served by a Licensed Chef
Because this dangerous delicacy can present so many health problems, not least of which is death, only a licensed chef can prepare it in Japan. This requires about three years of intense training along with an apprenticeship before a chef can take the examination. To illustrate the scope and difficulty of this exam, 70% of the applicants fail.
The chef carefully prepares the dish by recovering the most meat possible in thin slices. To do this they use a special knife called a fugu hiki using a specific technique known as usuzukuri (薄造).
This type of sashimi, called fugu sashi or fugu tessa comes so incredibly thin that you can see the serving plate’s pattern below.
Before Japan outlawed the consumption of fugu organs in 1984, some people would eat them, called fugu no shirako or fugu kimo. The high concentration of the toxin is far too lethal for eating.
How Does Fugu Kill You?
The neurotoxin inherent within fugu, called tetrodotoxin, comes from the marine microorganisms in the fish’s environment. Even though the pufferfish itself is immune to this, humans are not.
Therefore, there are high concentrations of it in the fish’s skin, organs, eyes, and flesh. But it’s this poisonous feature of fugu that protects it from would-be predators.
So, one tiny mistake in its preparation can kill someone. Unsurprisingly, several people die each year as a direct result of consuming fugu.
Once the toxin takes hold, it paralyzes the muscles yet the person is fully conscious. What makes it horrifying is the inability to breathe, which results in asphyxiation followed by death.
Is Fugu Legal in the US?
Fugu is legal in the US but only in certain places. There are requirements for licensed chefs to be able to buy, prepare and serve it. This means they go through the same rigorous training and testing standards as in Japan.
There are only six states with legalized fugu consumption. These are New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Louisiana, and Maryland.
However, there is an agreement with Japan via the FDA that allows for importing the prepared blowfish from a licensed chef in Japan.
There is only one acceptable import source and that’s in New York by a company called Wako International.
What Does Fugu Taste Like?
It’s difficult to say what fugu tastes like. Some people say it has no flavor at all while others insist it has a mild whitefish-like flavor.
Yet there are those who say it’s very pungent with a strong aroma. Some consumers report it has a clean, pure taste while others say it’s subtle yet powerful.
However, the consensus does tend to lean toward a clean and pristine flavor that’s firm, white, and flavorless. But, there’s a mysterious delectability about it that’s almost gummy.
However, it doesn’t have the typical fishy taste that other seafood does.
Some people report having a sense of euphoria after eating it and other daring people say it was a very underwhelming experience. But, if the toxin is present, then your lips and mouth will begin to feel numb during the meal with a subsequent experience of paralysis down the body.
Is There an Antidote to Fugu?
There isn’t an antidote to fugu poisoning. While death isn’t an uncommon side effect, most people will get extremely ill. If an affected person gets to the hospital in time, they receive standardized treatment.
This includes circulatory and respiratory support until the poison metabolizes and excretes from the body. Usually, patients ingest activated charcoal, which helps the body metabolize the poison faster.
That said, the demand for fugu is worldwide and it has evolved from direct ocean procurement into full farm-raising operations.
These fugu fish farms have nearly reduced the tetrodotoxin to the point there’s little, if any, risk to the consumer. The town of Usuki in the Ōita Prefecture has become quite famous for providing non-poisonous fugu.