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Fugu

“They’ll eat anything with four legs except a table, and anything with wings except an aeroplane.”

This expression is usually used by the Japanese to describe the eating habits of their quaint Asian neighbours, but many foreigners in Japan would apply it to the Japanese themselves. This is a country whose staple diet includes nattou (rotten soybeans). Another national delicacy, fugu, is potentially deadly.

Fugu is the Japanese name for the blowfish, an ugly critter with the enviable ability to inflate itself and project protective, highly-poisonous spikes. These spikes contain hefty doses of tetradotoxin, a nerve-shattering compound 1200 times deadlier than cyanide. One blowfish has enough poison to kill 30 people.

Warning Signs

If you’ve been eating fugu and your toes begin tingling, you should probably start worrying. If your lips turn blue soon afterwards, you have a few minutes to prepare some witty last words. Before the bill has arrived, your lungs have stopped working. Depending on your beliefs, the excruciating pain stops when you die.

Nearly 100 people a year die of fugu poisoning, mostly ambitious amateur chefs who try to prepare the treat at home. The most famous casualty was beloved kabuki actor (and officially designated “national treasure”) Mitsugoro Bando VIII. Dishing up fugu liver, the source of the poison, is forbidden but this chap managed to get served four portions before wishing he’d only had three.

Basically, fugu kills idiots. Maybe it’s not so bad.

History

The Tokugawa shogunate completely banned blowfish, and it was widely prohibited during the Meiji period. As government power over the populace has fallen, fugu consumption has increased. It remains the only Japanese dish which cannot be served to the Emperor.

Since 1958, chefs need a license to prepare fugu. This is a tedious task requiring great skill and precision. According to custom, a chef whose customer dies from his fugu is honour-bound to commit seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment).

As a result, there’s no rush to become a fugu chef. Also, very little of the fish is safe to eat, so a meal of blowfish can be very expensive. It’s like playing Russian Roulette with golden bullets. The popularity of fugu among the usually cautious Japanese, despite expense and risk of painful death, is paradoxical.

How to Prepare Fugu

Safe Fugu

Japanese scientists have managed to breed “safe” fugu. By changing the blowfish’s diet, the accumulation of toxin is prevented. However, this has not been met with enthusiasm. Fugu connoisseurs seem to relish the prospect of sudden, agonizing death.

"I'm not sure why anyone would want to remove the poison", says Takeshi Yamasuge, the owner of a fugu restaurant near Kyoto, "That’s why people eat fugu. They eat it because it’s dangerous."

Fugu Links

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