Fugu: the infamous Japanese seafood dish that is good enough to die for

Fugu is a Japanese delicacy made from sliced ​​puffer fish. As appealing as it may be to adventurous gastronauts, this tricky dish can prove deadly with just one wrong slip of the knife.

What is fugu?

Fugu is made from chopped puffer fish, served sashimi style. Chefs often arrange the thinly sliced ​​flesh into the shape of an innocent-looking flower.

Different types of puffer fish can be used, but Takifugu rubripes, also called the Tiger Puffer, is the most sought after – and the most venomous. The history of pufferfish eating in Japan goes back more than 4,000 years. However, at the time, fugu was probably eaten out of necessity, rather than out of fancy food trends.

Although the meat is perfectly edible and safe to eat, many parts of the pufferfish – such as the eyes, blood, liver, ovaries and intestines – contain tetrodotoxin (TTX), which is said to be “one of the most powerful is neurotoxic poisons found in the body. nature.”

TTX is estimated to be 1,200 times more toxic than cyanide and just 2 milligrams can be enough to kill someone. It attacks the body by interfering with the transmission of signals from nerves to muscles by blocking sodium channels, resulting in muscle paralysis.

When preparing the dish, chefs must be extremely careful not to accidentally cut into pieces where TTX is present in high concentrations, otherwise the meat could become contaminated with the neurotoxin. – and become fatally poisonous.

Fugu poisoning

Fugu was shot into the American consciousness by a beloved episode of The Simpsons in which Homer orders the dish at a sushi restaurant. It is believed that he has consumed the fugu’s poison and that he has 24 hours to live (well, actually 22 hours because the doctor made him wait that long).

As always, the Simpsons wasn’t that far wrong, although 24 hours might be a fairly generous time frame for fugu poisoning – toxicity symptoms can occur within 10 minutes to six hours after ingestion.

People who consume poorly prepared fugu will first notice a tingling sensation and numbness of the tongue, lips and face. As a result of muscle paralysis, they will have problems swallowing, walking, speaking and breathing. Most mild cases resolve within 24 hours, but in severe cases the person may experience respiratory depression, circulatory failure and death.

The Japanese Ministry of Health states that as many as fifty people become ill every year from pufferfish poisoning. Although their statistics do not specify the death rate, they say that “a few” people die each year and note that fugu “is responsible for the majority of food poisoning deaths in Japan.” In most of these cases, amateur chefs had attempted to prepare the fish at home.

Japan’s health authority adds that there is currently no effective treatment or antidote for puffer fish poisoning, so once the tell-tale symptoms emerge, doomed guests must brave the storm and hope they haven’t swallowed a fatal dose.

Feeling hungry? Three Takifugu puffer fish caught by fishermen.

Image credit: junrong/Shutterstock.com

What does fugu taste like?

Fugu is said to taste mild and quite light. New York Magazine food critic Adam Platt describes the experience of eating fugu as a “turnoff,” explaining that “it tastes bland and gummy, like a cross between… fluke and day-old squid.”

That said, he notes that the fish’s TTX neurotoxin produces a “pleasant numbing sensation when eaten in small amounts.”

How tasty!

Is fugu legal?

Given its obvious dangers, fugu consumption is strictly controlled and banned in many parts of the world. For example, the sale of all Tetraodontidae puffer fish is completely banned in the European Union.

Fugu is available at a number of prestigious restaurants in the US, although the Food and Drug Administration has quite strict regulations surrounding its marketing and importation. Since 2007, the only acceptable source of imported pufferfish has come from New York-based food importer Wako International.

It is legal in Japan, although the law only allows highly trained chefs and licensed restaurants to serve the dish. It was banned in the country for centuries between 1570 and 1870 due to the high number of deaths associated with the formidable fish.

How to become a fugu chef in Japan?

Obtaining a fugu license in Japan requires intense dedication, skill and knowledge.

As the New York Times explains, chefs must first receive two years of specialized training. Wannabe fugu masters must then pass a paper test in which they must identify by sight different species of pufferfish and label the specific parts of the body that act as reservoirs of TTX.

Finally, the chef must prepare fugu in the presence of a master. If even one drop of blood is shed, it is an instant failure.

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