Fugu – the poisonous delicacy of Japan

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I had a bad dream last night:

I was sitting at a dinner table. In front of me was a bowl of soup and in it some fish. I picked up my spoon, put a piece of fish in my mouth and swallowed it. It tasted bad. The moment that I swallowed the fish, the room went quiet, people around me stopped what they were doing and turned to stare at me. I was confused, but then I understood that the piece of fish that I had just eaten was fugu. I looked around to see where I was – was it a posh restaurant, or a dodgy looking restaurant, or someone’s home? -It was someone’s quite shabby and messy looking home. I regretted that I had eaten the fish and in a state of panic stood up to get some medical help.

And then I woke up.

Some of you might have heard of fugu – or blowfish/pufferfish as it is known outside Japan. It is a fish that goes from looking…well….like a fish into looking like a fancy Christmas tree bauble whenever threatened.

Blowfish is not quite like your salmons, cods and perches. In addition to the festive appearance of fugu, the main difference between fugu and most other fish is that fugu is toxic. In fact, it’s not just toxic like, say, toilet bleach. Instead, fugu is one of the most toxic vertebrates on the planet. Apparently, its poison is 1200 times more lethal than cyanide, and thus poison from just one fugu can kill 30 human adults.

And it’s pretty horrific how fugu poison works: within minutes of consuming the poison, the consumer will get paralyzed, starting from extremities, the poison then working inwards. The consumer of the poison, while still conscious, eventually suffocates from the paralysis of the diaphragm.

Even though I don’t know much about poisons, other than the very basics like: ‘You shouldn’t consume toilet bleach’, I know that cyanide sounds bad, which in turn means that something 1200 times more deadly sounds like something that under no circumstances should you eat.

But guess what! Japanese eat fugu – most commonly in a form or soup (nabe) or raw (sashimi). In fact, they don’t just eat it – it is considered a delicacy over here and people pay a lot of money to devour the rather risky fugu mouthfuls.

 

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As you might have guessed from the fact that Japanese eat fugu and the country having a healthy population of about 125 million, not all parts of fugu are toxic. I’ve understood that – depending on the type of blowfish – it is usually only the liver, reproductive organs and/or the eyes that are toxic. This means that if extremely carefully prepared, so that you remove the poisonous parts without allowing leaks of poison into the edible parts, the rest of the fish is safe to eat (in theory).

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Fugu in a tank outside a restaurant

 

Because of the high stakes, chefs preparing fugu are required to undergo two to three years of training. I assume these chefs take their job very seriously and thus you probably wouldn’t find some bored of life character hanging over fugu holding a knife in one hand while fiddling with his balls with the other, and when I say ‘his balls’, I mean the fugu’s – after all, fugu testicles seem be on the menu in some restaurants for adrenalin junkies who prefer the more poisonous (and hence risky) parts of the fish.

The removed poisonous parts of fugu do not lie around on restaurant kitchen surfaces so that there is a chance they’ll accidently end up in someone’s soup or on a sashimi platter – nor are those parts put in general waste bins. Since you are probably not allowed to bin cyanide, it kind of makes sense that you are not able to chuck poisonous fish parts in the bin either – although that might be an effective method of getting rid of the neighbourhood vermin. But no, fugu is not used as rat poison. Instead, the toxic fugu organs are placed in a secure box for special disposal.

What makes eating fugu scary is the fact that occasionally mistakes are made. Every so often, restaurants that do not have the licence to prepare fugu, prepare it anyway and end up killing/hospitalizing people. And occasionally expert chefs make mistakes – after all they are only human, and even though I am not familiar with fugu anatomy, I assume that removing fugu testicles or ovaries correctly requires an extremely steady hand.

When I’ve talked to my Japanese friends about the health and safety aspect of fugu they all seem to have a pretty similar view: They don’t think it is dangerous to eat fugu, and they all say the same thing: Fugu is delicious and the risk is minimal. A couple of friends have added that if they are unfortunate to get a poisonous piece of fugu, at least it is a quick death.

I can’t but envy their happy-go-lucky attitude towards death/dying.

Regardless of the fact that the chefs are experts and have gone through a rigorous training, and the chances are you will live to experience another day (and another fugu mouthful), I’m too much of a coward to taste this Japanese delicacy. What about you? Yes, you the reader -Would you try it? Do you love adrenaline kicks so much that you would take the risk of that piece of fugu being your last ever mouthful? (Or maybe you have tried it!) It would be really interesting to know whether or not I am the only chicken shit here.

Speaking of which, I’ve heard that fugu tastes like chicken. This baffles me. If it tastes like chicken, why not just have chicken then? If fugu tasted like nothing else in this planet, then maybe it would be worth trying it, once.

I suppose my Japanese fugu lover friends do have a point. Although it is not unheard of, it is very rare that you would get a fugu poisoning in a restaurant in Japan. There are probably more mochi (i.e. Japanese chewy rice-cake, that poses a relatively high choking hazard) related deaths annually than fugu poisonings, and if one is willing to consume mochi (which me and my kids loooove), then maybe s/he should have the balls to try fugu as well.

A more close to home analogy would be wild mushrooms. My Japanese friends seem to view Finnish wild mushrooms much more apprehensively than they do fugu. Some Finnish wild mushrooms (e.g. chantarelles and porcini) are delicious and safe to eat, but some of them are really poisonous (e.g. European destroying angel). When picking mushrooms in the forest, it is crucial that you know which mushrooms you pick and that you stick to the mushroom that you recognise – otherwise you might find yourself in long-term kidney dialysis, or worse. Regardless of this, I am not scared of eating wild mushrooms – not even the ones that I order in a restaurant or the ones I buy chopped up in a vacuum bag in a shop. It is of course impossible to know what the mushrooms were that went into the restaurant’s mushrooms sauce or shop’s vacuum bag, but that doesn’t make me anxious. I trust the mushroom picker, the restaurant and the shop. I’m sure they have all ensured that there is nothing harmful in the food I’ve purchased. Since this is the case with mushroom, it’s left me thinking:

Why do I feel anxious about eating fugu?

 

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10 thoughts on “Fugu – the poisonous delicacy of Japan

  1. I hear you on the fugu thing. I’m sure it’s delicious, and perfectly safe to eat, but in my mind, it would need to be mind-blowingly delicious to consider eating it…..

  2. There are so many delicious things to eat in Japan that I never have been tempted, in the slightest, to try Fugu. It may be delicious, but it looks awful, and given how very toxic it is, how much I love being alive, and how little I know about what goes on, by whom, in any particular restaurant kitchen, I see no reason to try Fugu. I am by no means risk-averse…but the risk has to be commensurate with the potential reward. I love to parachute jump and have done it 64 times, but before I left the ground, I had been trained to within an inch of my life and was confident in my ability to handle any emergency.

  3. Yeah, no fugu for me either. I’m sure the Japanese feel about fugu exactly the way you feel about mushrooms (a feeling I share, btw). I’m thinking that’s because you’re just so familiar with the food and have seen millions of people eat it as well as eaten it yourself a million times from the time you were little. Also, apparently many things taste like chicken. I’ve heard that about snakes. Why is that? I’m happy with chicken, thank you very much.

    • Yeah, I agree – a lot of it is to do with what you’ve got used to as a child and consider ‘normal’.

      Good question! Maybe it is because chicken doesn’t have a very strong flavour and most people have tried chicken, and thus other – more obscure – things that also haven’t got a strong flavour can be grouped into the bland category known as ‘chicken’ 🙂

  4. First time I was in Osaka I ate fugu soup and it tasted much like Finnish pike-perch (kuha) soup. The fish is very tasty, but on the other hand the taste isn’t that amazing. I ate fugu just to see what it tastes like (never turned down a chance to taste something new). And as an experience so that I can say “I ate the most poisonous thing out there and didn’t die”.

    Based on the statistics what I heard in the university, it sounds to me that one is more likely to win in the lottery than bite dust from eating fugu. So I wasn’t nervous about eating it and I’m quite sure I will eat it again someday. But I understand if someone doesn’t want to even take that tiny risk. I mean, almost every week someone wins the lottery too…

    • Thanks very much for your insight on trying fugu! I have to admit, I’m a little jealous 🙂

      If fugu tastes like kuha then maybe there’s no point in trying it for the taste, but I can see why one would try it for the novelty factor or for an adrenalin kick.

      Since I am a wimp, maybe I’ll just stick with natto, at least then I can say: I’ve eaten the most disgusting thing out there and didn’t puke 😀

  5. Eipa tullut koskaan mieleen etta sienien syominen ravintolassa voisi olla vaarallista! Mutta voihan se tosiaan… En kylla maistaisi tuota. Vaikka siis kalaa soisinkin. Jos joskus tulen Japaniin, vetoan vegetarismiin..! 😀

    • Ehkä tää oli multa vähän kaukaa haettu esimerkki 🙂 mutta mulla ei myöskään tulis mieleenkään kyseenalaistaa poimijaa tai ravintolaa sienien suhteen, mutta pallokalan suhteen kyseenalaistan… Ps. Ei täällä ymmärretä mikä ‘kasvissyöjä’ on 😀

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