Puffer fish or fugu is the only delicacy forbidden to the Emperor of Japan, for his own safety. Puffer fish are the second most poisonous vertebrae in the world, after the golden poison frog.The flesh of the puffer fish or fugu is considered a delicacy in Japan and Korea. In Japan it is known as fugu and bok in Korean. In 1603-1868 The Tokogawa Shogunate prohibited the consumption of fugu on Edo and its area of influence. When the power of Shogunate weakened, people started to eat fugu again. During the Meiji era, (1867-1912) fugu was again banned in many areas of Japan . Fugu contains lethal amounts of the poison tetrodotoxin in the organs ,especially the liver area and ovaries,and also the skin. The poison is a sodium channel blocker, which paralyzes the muscles while the victim is fully conscious and eventually dies from asphyxiation. There is no known antidote for fugu poisoning. The standard medical approach is to support the respiratory and circulatory system until the poison dissipates.
Starting 1958, Japan only use licensed chefs to prepare puffer fish or fugu. The license chef know how to remove and isolate the poisonous part of the fish when preparing it. The offals (liver and ovaries) contain the toxic poison and a precise skill in removing it is a must. The chef have to wear thick gloves when processing the fish to protect them from the poisonous sting of the fish spines that can pierce them while skinning the fish . To ensure that the poison is contained in the opals, the fish is skinned alive. In Japan selling of fugu liver is illegal. Some stubborn chefs disregard this rule and eat the liver, which often result in death. During the post war era where many people in Japan were left homeless and without food, these people dig the restaurant garbages and ate what was thrown out. Deaths have resulted because they ate the liver and opals that were discarded . Now the restaurant are required to store the discarded opals and liver in a locked container. In Thailand, many people died because of eating the fugu fish, which came with the fisherman’s catch. The people who bought and prepared the fish were unfamiliar with the poisonous nature of the fish.
To become a licensed fugu chef one must undergo 3 years of apprenticeship before being allowed to take an official test. Only 35% pass the rigourous test which is consist of a written test, illustration and actual preparation of the fugu fish. In addition the licensed chef must also have artistic skill. The most popular puffer fish dish is fugu sashimi, also called fugu sushi, or tessa. The fish is sliced thinly (transparent) using a fugu hiki knife so that the pattern of the plate ,where the fish is to be served can be seen throughout the plate and are often arranged in the form of a chrysanthemum flower which is significant to Japanese culture and symbolic of death. When fugu is deep fried it is called fugu-kare-age. When the fins of the puffer fish or fugu are fried and soaked in hot sake, the dish is called hiri-sake. A fugu stew prepared with traditional vegetables is called fugu-chin or tetchini. The skin of the fugu is sliced thinly and added to salad in a dish called yubiki. The soft roe (shirako) of the blowfish, a variety of puffer fish is a highly prized Japanese item. It is often sold in department stores around Japan in tiny wood gift boxes. I have eaten the soft roe of the cod, and it is quite delicious eaten with melba toast and a dash of brandy over it. The appearance of the shirako is similar to cod milt and but by far more expensive.
A dish of puffer fish or fugu can cost approximately $50.00 and can be found as low as $20.00. A full course (usually 8 servings can cause between $100-200.00 or more. Fugu has become one of the most celebrated and notorious dish in Japan.
As of 2008, due to advances in fugu research, a non toxic fugu can now be mass produced. The farmers farm the fugu by separating them from tetrodotoxin-laden bacterias. Usuki, a town in Oita Prefecture ,became famous for selling non-poisonous fugu. So far no one has been poisoned or died from eating the fish.
In some remote area of Japan, the puffer fish or fugu is pickled, which allows the poisonous part to be eaten . The exact method is not known and kept as a secret . From what someone can surmiss, the process involves lengthly saturation of the fish in sake and salt for over 3 years.
Strict fishing regulation are now in place to protect the dwindling fugu population from being depleted. Most fugu are harvested in the spring during the spawning season and then farmed in floating cages in the pacific ocean. The largest wholesale market for fugu in Japan is Shimonoseki. Fugu prices rise in the fall and peak in winter,which afecionados claim is the best time to eat fugu, as the fugu fatten themselves before winter to survive the cold. The fugu are shipped to the restaurant alive and only licensed chef are allowed to prepare them for the public.
As a child I have seen puffer or fugu fish washed in the seashore in the town where I grew up as a child and was informed earlier on by my elders of the danger and poisonus nature of the puffer fish . We were only allowed to look and are forbidden to touch the fish. The Japanese who live in our town know how to prepare and eat the fish. Japanese restaurants in town did not serve the fish in their menu, if they did, it is only to a few select Japanese clientile. Since there is an abundance of fish from the sea , rivers and fish ponds, there was no desire to eat this ugly looking fish. Since I have not eaten fugu I can not describe the taste. People who ate fugu say that it is quite delicious and worth the risk . The centuries of trouble that Japan had to go through to make this delicacy survive means there is something special about it. I have been told that the taste is decadent! As for me, the risk is far too great to arrive at an ecstasy.