Fugu is the Japanese term for a fish native to the Pacific Ocean. The name comes from fuku meaning 'to swell'1. It is the generic term for any fish in the Tetraodontoid family; these are the 'puffer' fish, also known as blowfish or balloon fish. It is a rather unattractive fish, which has the ability to puff its body up to 300 times its usual volume and extend spikes for protection. The fish pumps air or water into the first two thirds of its stomach. The skin is able to stretch due to collagen fibres that reinforce it, also providing strength. If it is caught and eaten, it has been known to inflate after it has been swallowed, killing the predator, and then gnawing its way out of the stomach. If this doesn't work, the predator will die from the toxin.
It has a beak-like mouth with a toothed plate on the upper and lower biting surfaces. The arrangement of the muscles in the jaw gives it huge amounts of crushing force, but little speed or suction.
Some of the fish's organs - the ovaries, testicles, skin, muscles and particularly the liver - contain tetrodotoxin, a powerful poison. Tetrodotoxin is 1,200 times deadlier than cyanide, and one fish contains enough poison to kill 30 people. Acting mainly on the nervous system, the symptoms in order of severity are:
- Physical discomfort
- Prickling or tingling of the mouth
- Subnormal temperature
- Rapid weak pulse
- Respiratory distress/arrest
There is no known antidote.
This fish is considered a delicacy in Japan.
Chefs have to be specially trained and licensed to prepare and cook fugu, as there are many different types of fugu and the poisonous parts vary. There is a written and practical test; only a quarter of applicants pass the written test, and the practical test includes eating the fish that has been prepared.
The preparation requires a 30-step process, leaving just enough of the tetrodotoxin so that the mildest effects tantalise the diner, yet leaving them safe from the devastating and irreversible effects of a fatal amount. Deaths do, however, still occur. From 1974 until 1983 there were 646 reported cases of fugu fish-poisoning in Japan, with 179 fatalities. It is a continuing problem in Japan, with between 30 and 100 cases of poisoning reported every year, although most of these cases are caused by home preparation.
The rules for preparing fugu are extremely strict. There are rules for cleanliness and preparation, storage of the toxic parts, and careful reporting on the amount of fish handled and the distribution of the internal organs. People with poor vision or who are colour blind are not eligible to train as fugu chefs.
There is a certain ceremony to eating fugu. The fish is shown to the diners, and then the chef takes it back to the kitchen where the fish is opened and the organs removed. The fins are cut off, fried and served in hot sake. The fish is skinned and the spikes removed, the skin then served in a salad. The head is cut off, the fish filleted and then paper-thin slices are served raw.
Due to the metabolism slowing down so much when the poison is ingested, breathing and heartbeat are often imperceptible. This can result in the victim suddenly 'returning from the dead' when the effects have worn off. The houngan of Haiti use a powder made from a similar fish in their zombie rituals. Hollywood hype would have us believe that zombies are raised from the dead, but the victims are 'killed' using the powder. Victims are conscious of sound and sight while their bodies are paralysed. The houngan retrieves the 'corpse' and revives it, keeping the victim sedated. This makes it appear that the body is alive but the soul is dead. The zombie is usually hired out as manual labour, so making it profitable for the houngan.
The attractions of this fish are many and varied. Some say that the delicate flavour is the main attraction, others say that the testes in a glass of hot sake are a powerful aphrodisiac. Part of the experience of eating the fish is the warm tingling and slight numbing of the lips that is one of the symptoms of eating the toxin. But without a doubt, the biggest thrill is the kudos gained from eating a meal that could cost your life, and surviving.
The fugu ryotei (restaurants specialising in fugu) are easily recognisable. They all display a lantern made out of the skin of a fugu on the outside of the premises. They also have a picture of the fish painted on the entrance. Here are a few places in Tokyo where you can try fugu for yourself:
Shunsagami - Odakyu Manhattan Hills 13F, 1-1-3 Nishi Shinjuku. Nearest station: Shinjuku, west exit.
Tsukitei - 1-39-1 Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku. Nearest station: Ikebukuro, west exit, behind the Tobu department store.
Ajioka - New Comparu Bldg. 6F, 7-7-12 Ginza. Nearest station: Ginza, near Chuo Dori.
Ikesu - 1-5-25 Higashi-machi, Kichijoji. 0422-21-1438. Nearest station: Kichijoji, near Seiyu.
Fuguyoshi - 1-5-2-13-8 Ikebukuro. Nearest station: Ikebukuro, west exit.