Fugu has been on my “to-eat” list for quite some time. It’s often advertised as the most dangerous food in the world. However, most Fugu related deaths come from consumption of the illegal and highly poisonous liver. In addition, advances in technology have produced a “non-toxic” farmed version, that is becoming increasingly common. So is it really as dangerous as it’s made out to be?
Fugu is the Japanese word for puffer fish or blow fish. The most popular species is the Tora-fugu or Tiger Blow fish, which also happens to be the most poisonous. It’s flesh contains tetrodotoxin, a powerful neurotoxin produced by bacteria the fish ingests. It’s most concentrated in the eyes, liver, and ovaries. Tetrodotoxin is more lethal than cyanide and has no known antidote.
The Japanese have been eating Fugu for centuries. Government statistics show up to 50 people per year are hospitalized as a result of consuming the fish, with several deaths reported. The majority of the reported casualties consumed Fugu outside of licensed restaurants, and many of them consumed super poisonous liver, ovaries or eyes.
In Japan, the fish is only allowed to be prepared and served by licensed chefs. The certification course takes two to three years, and has a very low pass rate. The skills developed revolve around separating the poisonous parts from the meat.
Fugu has been legal for consumption and importation in the United States for several years. However, all the fish sold in the United States is prepared in Japan by licensed chefs, frozen and then shipped to its destination.
Thanks to advances in technology, Japanese fish farmers are now mass producing Fugu. Whats more, they’ve been able to isolate the fish from the conditions in the wild that make the Fugu poisonous. The result is a fish with little to no toxicity, which supposedly tastes identical to the wild version.
For my first taste of Fugu, I went to Sushi Taro, a Michelin starred restaurant in downtown Washington, DC. Sushi Taro imports only farmed Fugu from Japan. The fish is traditionally prepared many ways, but is most popular served as thinly sliced sashimi. Sushi Taro had several options, but I ordered the Nigiri priced at $20.
When my dish arrived I eyeballed it for a minute, slightly hesitant and excited. I took my first bite, and was completely underwhelmed. It was lean and delicate, but almost tasteless.
Veteran Fugu eaters say that you can feel tingling around your lips and a sense of euphoria from the residual toxin in the flesh. Despite being the “non-toxic” farmed version, I was still hoping to feel something. Nothing. No tingle, numbness or dizziness, except from the sake I was gulping down.
Dangerous or Not?
Several places in Japan still serve wild Tora-Fugu, the most poisonous and potent form of the fish. With growing demand however, farmed blow fish is becoming more common. If you want the experience, without the danger, farmed Fugu might be the choice for you.
Given that most Fugu overdoses derive from irresponsible preparation or consumption of the liver, even eating properly prepared Fugu may not be that dangerous. All Fugu is virtually tasteless, so much of the appeal is the danger factor. In my opinion to get the true experience you have to eat the wild poisonous version. The next time I’m in Japan, I plan on rolling the dice and getting the true Fugu experience.