Daredevil dining

For those who like to defy danger, fugu is just the ticket.

Ever look at a food and wonder, “who was the first person to eat that?” Whoever the first person was to eat fugu, Japan’s most dangerous delicacy, that person probably died shortly thereafter thanks to the toxic effect of this poisonous poisson. Fortunately for adventurous foodies, fugu can now be consumed safely. Yet the ability to flirt with danger over dinner is what gives this dish its ongoing allure.

Despite the risk, fugu has been eaten in Japan since about 10,000 B.C. It was banned by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1570 due to the number of deaths resulting from its consumption. It made a comeback in 1888 after it was enjoyed by Hirobumi Ito, the first prime minister of Japan, and quickly earned its modern status as a delicacy. But because of the risk, there are strict regulations regarding its preparation.

When the fugu, or puffer fish, “puffs” up, it doesn’t use air. Instead, it uses a substance called tetrodotoxin, a powerful neurotoxin that is exponentially more potent than cyanide. If the poisonous parts of the fish are consumed, diners will feel a numbness in the mouth followed by paralysis and asphyxiation causing death. What makes the fish safe to eat is the removal of the internal organs where the toxin is stored.

Given the danger that comes along with feasting on this fish, the rules for fugu chefs are very strict. They must be licensed, which requires a rigorous training program, and only 35% pass the certification examination. Chefs also have to follow strict regulations in discarding the poisonous parts of the fish, using locked disposal containers and labels to make sure everything has been removed. Traditionally chefs who prepare fugu are also required to taste what they serve to prove that they have done it correctly. The rigorous training that fugu chefs experience also contributes to the high price, since you are quite literally putting your life in their hands!

In 2012 however, prompted by a decline in deaths and a growing trend of Tokyoites purchasing fugu in other less strict parts of the country, the regulations on fugu in Tokyo Prefecture were relaxed. This change allows restaurants to purchase and serve fugu prepared offsite, and it lets the fish be bought in grocery stores, also bringing down the cost of this risky dish. There are also fugu farmers that have worked to breed a non-poisonous variety, but fugu fans insist that wild tastes better.

Fugu is celebrated as a winter food, eaten on special occasions—perhaps because for some, the best way to celebrate success is by doing something dangerous, despite the fact that with fugu the risk is mostly eliminated. Fugu is commonly eaten as sashimi but is also often served grilled or as part of another winter favourite, nabe. The flavour is subtle, with some even claiming that it actually does taste like chicken. We may not know who the rst person was to eat fugu, but the last won’t be coming around anytime soon.