All You Need to Know About the Poisonous Fugu of Japan

Japan’s cuisine is one that is made up of all kinds of different tastes and textures. It showcases the diversity in their culture because of the wide range of Japanese specialties you can try and enjoy. They have their fried seafood specialties like the tempura, their bite-sized full meals known as sushi, and their raw but extremely delicious seafood known as sashimi. All these types of food are known for different things but none of them are known for things like the Fugu.

An Overview of the Japanese Blowfish Called Fugu and its History

Fugu is the Japanese word used to describe a pufferfish or a blowfish. It is a fish that is usually served as chirinabe or as sashimi. It is a delicious fish and the way that the Japanese cuisine prepares this fish just makes it all the more mouth-watering. Despite its renowned taste, there is a dark side to this fish. It contains a lethal poison known as tetrodotoxin.

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It is this reason that serving in this in Japan as well as in other countries is strictly regulated to avoid deaths caused by its toxins. Only chefs who have gone through the proper training and have accumulated years of experience in the process of removing the poison from the fish can prepare the fugu for certain Japanese dishes. This makes perfect sense because, at the time when it was rising in popularity, more and more deaths were caused by domestic preparation of this fish.

With the danger that this fish literally brings to the table, it is quite interesting to find out that the people of Japan have been eating this fish since the Jomon period. This claim is backed up by the shell middens used in the Jomon period called the kaizuka which contained the bones of the fugu.

It was banned multiple times throughout the history of Japan. The first time it was banned was during the Tokugawa shogunate period which was from the year of 1603 until the year of 1868. Since the prohibition was implemented by the shogunate alone, only the areas of Edo and surrounding areas under the influence of the shogunate were forced into this ban. Back then, the weaker the influence of the shogunate, the easier to get some fugu.

Since fugu circulation never really stopped in Japan, they soon found new ways to prepare the fish to be poison-free. The weakening of the shogunate’s power revitalized the market for fugu and it was soon a common dish to be served once again. Despite, during the Meiji Era which lasted from 1867 until 1912, it was once again banned in many areas. This was also the time when the government banned the Emperor of Japan from eating this fish, due to safety reasons.

It was mentioned earlier that only the chefs who specialized in the preparation of this fish were allowed to handle it. To aid this intention of increasing the safety of the public when eating this fish, they also started to create areas where they regulate these fishes. They populated and grew the fugu in environments that made them less toxic and they were harvesting in a cycle with depended on the season in the year. In present, the harvest season in these regulation areas usually happens during the spring-time. Contrary to this time frame, the prices of the fugu spike up during the autumn-time and peak in the winter-time because this is when the fattest fugu can be bought and eaten.

Getting a license to handle this fish is not taken lightly either. They have to finish 2-3 year apprenticeship and then they are to be tested in a licensing examination. This exam is comprised of 3 parts. There are written test, practical test, and fish identification test. This exam is so gruesome that only 35 percent of the takers pass and get their license. As gruesome as this exam is, it was the right movement for Japan because it makes the consumers feel safer and knowing that the people preparing this deadly fish exactly what they are doing. In May of 2012, BBC released an article that shared information about the Tokyo government’s plan to ease restrictions of the service of this fish by October of 2012, it materialized because the safety for serving this fish reached a new milestone. In a citation, it stated that Japanese restaurants were given permission to sell the fugu prepared and packaged by licensed practitioners of this poison removal craft. This was monumental because it meant that people could safely enjoy this Japanese delicacy in the comforts of their home.

The Specifics about Its Poison and Toxicity

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Tetrodotoxin is also referred to as TTX and it is what makes the fugu deadly. This toxin is a neurotoxin which means that it attacks the brain and the nervous system of the victim. It messes up the control a person has over their body by shutting down the electrical signals sent through the nerves from the brain to the other parts of the body.  To put it simply, it sends the victim into a coma-like state but they are fully conscious of the progressive failure of their body parts.

This toxin isn’t really produced by the fugu. The reason why isolation areas that produce fugu are able to make them toxic-free is that the TTX is actually caused by the bacteria in the habitat of the fugu. These bacteria are the likes of Alteromonas, Shewanella, and Vibrio. Since the fugu are surrounded by these bacteria, it is inevitable for the fugu to ingest them. This is the reason why the skin and the innards, like the liver and ovaries of the fugu, are the parts that contain the most poison.

The symptoms of this poison can be detected. Those who have experienced poisoning from TTX will know that the symptoms one goes through during exposure to this toxin include the likes of dizziness, headaches, nausea, difficulty in breathing, and even exhaustion. As it progresses, the victim will be awake but they will be unable to speak or move once the toxin has taken full effect on the nervous system. The fact that there isn’t an antidote to this toxin makes it all the scarier to face. The only known way for a victim to survive is to empty their stomach to avoid adding more poison to the body and making them ingest activated charcoal to bind to the toxin and slow it down. While all of this is happening, the victim must be hooked on life support because they might not be able to breathe on their own, given that they have lost control of their bodies. Once they are hooked on life support and the charcoal has been taken in, all the victim can do is just to wait and pray untill they survive the attack.

Since it is quite hard to survive the poison once ingested, it makes sense that the death rate from the TTX in fugu used to kill about 500 people a year back when it wasn’t regulated as strictly as it is now. It was smart for the government to make their filtering process for this dish and its poison as detailed and thorough as it is because considering all that has been mentioned above, the best way to stay alive is prevention of malpractice when it comes to completely cleaning out the poisonous parts of the fish in the proper manner it should be removed. Because of this thorough process, the death rate from the TTX in present times have been reduced to 3 people per year and it only occurs in cases wherein amateur and recreational chefs attempt what they aren’t licensed to do.

The Different Way to Make Use of the Fugu

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The most common way to enjoy this fish is eating it as a sashimi. However, it isn’t the only type of fugu worth trying because of the fact that each and every kind and serving of the fugu taste and feel a certain way. The sashimi type of fugu is called Fugu sashi or tessa and it is cut into unusually thin slices of raw fish. Comparing the thickness of a salmon or tuna sashimi to the thinness of the fugu sashimi, the thickness of the fugu wouldn’t even reach 1/8 the thickness of a regular salmon sashimi. This technique of cutting thin sashimi is called Usuzukuri.

You can also enjoy the fugu in the form of milt. This is the roe version of the fugu and it is one of the more expensive food items in Japan due to its rarity. Another way to enjoy this fish is eating it fried. When this is the way it is served, it is called the Fugu Kara-age. Ordering a Hire-zake means that you are asking for a baked fugu fish. In this particular dish, the fins are dried out and the baked fish is served with hot sake to give its flavor a wonderful boost.

It can also be enjoyed as a stew and a salad, in some cases. The stew is pretty much like any other stew you can find with the addition of the fugu meat, of course. The salad, on the other hand, is quite tricky because sometimes the skin of the fugu is served with it. This type of salad is called yubiki and it is scary because the skin of the fugu is known to be one of the parts that hold the most toxins. Worry not though as long as you are eating in a licensed restaurant under the management of a licensed chef. These people are legitimately certified so you can trust them with your life.

In some specific Japanese cuisines like the cuisine of Hakusan, Ishikawa, even the ovaries of the fugu are served in a certain way. Just like the yubiki, this is quite a worrisome dish because the ovaries of the fugu are also known to be one of the more toxic parts of the fish. They reduce the level of toxicity in the ovaries, dishes that use it serve it as salted or pickled. By doing so, the level of TTX greatly decreases, making it edible to those who dare.

Considering the extensive process that the fugu and the chefs handling the fugu go through to ensure their safety to the public, you can now enjoy a delicious meal of fugu on any day that you are in Japan. Their government takes this issue very seriously so if trying this dangerous dish out is on your bucket list when in Japan, you can cross it out without a sweat because the Japanese government has done the necessary actions for people like you to do just that. All you have to do is as a traveler is to make sure that the place you are marching into is a certified fugu provider. Once that is assured, feel free to order and eat whatever type of fugu you want to try.