Is it worth risking your life for fish?
Quite a few Japanese think so, which explains why fugu the fish dish is such a sought-after delicacy in Japan. The Japanese have been eating it for ages, knowing fully well that they may not come out of the meal alive.
For just a single tiny fugu contains enough poison in its body to kill off 30 adult humans, no questions asked. You have to be a real Rambo, if not in body at least in spirit, to ingest this death wish of a dish.
A fugu meal can’t be prepared by just about anybody. There are specialized fugu chefs for the purpose, who have been trained rigorously in the art of fugu cooking and given licenses to cook.
Understandable, because one wrong slicing movement as you cut up the fish can make you a murderer. Understandable, too, because if you accidentally cut yourself while cutting up the poison-laced fish, you will be dead meat yourself.
Fugu chef Yutaka Sasaki knew all these dangers when he signed up for his unique vocation at the tender age of 18. Now, 45 years later, he is a “fugu specialist” with a lot of fugu wisdom to impart. Check out his interview by Great Big Story released online recently.
What you just saw will seem an idealized – even sanitized – version of the real thing once you see below the more sanguine video of another fugu specialist going about his business (graphic images, viewer discretion advised). The whole thing feels more like an operation-theatre-cum-bomb-disposal spectacle than a humble kitchen performance.
Beyond Japan, Fugu is known as blowfish or pufferfish. The “blow” and the “puff” are there because the fish literally “blows” up or “puffs” up when frightened. It is a defense mechanism meant to dissuade predators from eating it — you can’t eat something that has suddenly grown into a ball four times its original size.
Apparently, the fugu poison doesn’t act as lethally on sea predators as it does on humans. This is because fugu’s natural predators have developed immunity against the poison, which is interesting because the fugu poison (known as tetrodotoxin) is 1,200 times more deadly than cyanide.
Intake of even a small amount of this deadly substance by a diner produces terrifying results.
The very first sign that something is wrong is a “numbness” around the mouth of the diner. This is followed by paralysis, with the diner not being able to utter a single word or to give any signal that their life is in danger. Moving on from paralysis, there is certain death.
And all through this process, the diner remains completely, cruelly, conscious. Right to the very end.
The worst thing about dying by fugu is the absence of hope. To date, there has been no known antidote to tetrodotoxin.
The most famous victim of fugu has been the Kabuki actor Mitsugoro Bando. He died in a Kyoto restaurant in 1975, felled by four servings of the prohibited fugu liver. The liver and ovaries are the most poisonous parts of a fugu, and chefs are not allowed to serve them under any circumstances. However, once in a while, some chefs give in to the pressure of their thrill-seeking customers and offer tiny liver portions. At best, this reportedly produces a harmless “tingling” sensation in the diner; at worst, it leads to tragedies like the one involving Bando.
What drives the Japanese to flirt so with danger?
According to Kiichi Kitahara, owner of a blowfish museum in Osaka, it may have something to do with the forbidden nature of the delicacy.
“Human beings are funny. They want to eat what is forbidden. The history of blowfish is the history of prohibition by authorities. If blowfish weren’t poisonous, they might not be so popular.”
For Japan-based American author Barry Lancet, the taming of fugu reflects the Japanese people’s essential ingenuity and resourcefulness (via LA Review Of Books).
“So, the question is, are we foolish to have it, or foolish not to? In olden times, when eating the fish was far more dangerous, this would have verged on the philosophical. Living dangerously. Taking your life into your hands… The fact that the Japanese figured out how to safely prepare the fish is a testimony to their tradition, ingenuity, and culinary tendencies. They love to explore the intricacies of food and so many other things.”
And finally, here’s a video of Homer Simpson’s brush with the legendary “edible.”
What do you feel about people risking their lives for mere fish? If an opportunity presented itself, would you dare to eat fugu?
[Image via Shutterstock/Hariraya]