Back in January this year, a Japanese city was put on red alert because a deadly foodstuff had accidentally entered the food chain through a local supermarket. Loudspeakers across Gamagori in Central Japan played warnings to citizens, while media coverage also tried to ensure that everyone became aware of the danger. The food in question is one of the most lethal natural products, a puffer fish known in Japanese as fugu.
It is also, however, a much sought-after and expensive delicacy, beloved by diners for its unique attributes, as well as the thrill of eating such a potentially fatal dish. The thrill, however, is no laughing matter. In the 1980’s, on average almost one diner per week died in Japan from eating fugu. In recent years, however, the figures have fallen considerably and Japan now sees around six deaths per year.
Why is Fugu Dangerous?
The fugu are not, however, innately poisonous. Their deadly poison tetrodotoxin – far more lethal than cyanide or arsenic - comes because they eat certain shellfish which are themselves poisonous. It then stores as poison in the fugu’s skin, ovaries and most notably its liver.
The poison works by blocking nerves, meaning that muscle control and breathing are affected. What makes it worse is that there is no known antidote – the only possible cure coming if people can quickly receive artificial breathing support. All of which makes one wonder why anybody would consider eating it in the first place. But for centuries, it has been a great delicacy, particularly in Japan’s southern Setouchi region.
Setouchi is home to some of the country’s finest produce, from Kobe beef to Hiroshima oysters, artisanal soy sauce makers to sake breweries. It is also home to the pretty seaside town of Shimonoseki, home to Japan’s only fugu wholesale market – as well the country’s oldest fugu restaurants.
The delicacy was banned in Japan from the late sixteenth century, but in the late nineteenth century Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi visited Shimonoseki, fell for the puffer fish and allowed the ban to be lifted, initially in the Yamaguchi prefecture surrounding the town. T
The elegant port quickly became the centre of trade around fugu, while local chefs became experts in detoxifying the puffer fish – a technique called ‘migaki’. It’s a delicate practice which takes years of training before a licence is awarded – but it also means that the chances of any poisonous fish reaching diners or shoppers today are very low, given the extremely rigorous standards of Japanese food protection.
Where to eat Fugu?
Today, scores of restaurants in the city’s bustling Haedomari market in Shimonoseki offer fugu in countless guises. Popular versions include sashimi, in congee rice porridge called fugu zosui or deep fried kara-age. One particular version, not for the unadventurous, is grilled shirako, namely soft roe or testis.
In Tokyo, three Michelin-starred restaurants serving fugu include Usuki Fugu Yamadaya where diners pay upwards of US$200 per person, while Torafugu Tei has branches in the capital and across the country at more moderate prices as they farm their own fugu.
Back in Shimonoseki, the guardian shrine features a large puffer fish statue, while cute pufferfish paper lanterns are dotted across the town. Shunpanro is by far the most famous fugu restaurant as it was the first to serve it to Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi in 1888.
A tasting lunch bought fugu in multiple guises, including delicious translucent sashimi, excellent kara-age and also in the form of sake, infused with the dried fin of the puffer fish. It was an impeccable meal in a beautiful location overlooking the water – while the faintest hint of tingling on the lips at the end of the meal had this diner convinced that he had tasted something very special indeed.