‘Fugu’ is considered to be Japan’s most dangerous dish, so why do they eat it and what makes it so popular?

Would you ever eat a dish so dangerous that there was a chance that you could die from it? This could be taking food fanatics to another level but in Japan, the ‘fugu’ fish is among one of the most luxurious dishes that you could eat. But if it is as deadly as it claims, why would they be allowed to eat it?

The Japanese blowfish more commonly referred to as ‘fugu’ is the most poisonous fish in the sea. It is so poisonous, that even the Japanese royal family are forbidden from eating it. There is also no antidote for it.  Akiko Katayama is a food writer based in New York city and the host and producer of “JAPAN EATS!”, a podcast which introduces Japanese food culture to the world. She said “They say fugu was already eaten in Japan during the Joman period, around 10,000 years ago, but the famous Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi banned its consumption due to the increasing death of those who consumed the poisonous part of the fish in 1598. The ban was lifted in 1888 and has been enjoyed widely throughout Japan since then.”

However, despite the numerous food poisonings and deaths caused by it, people still seek out to eat it. Fugu contains the deadly poison ‘tetrodotoxin’ which is said to be far more lethal than cyanide or arsenic. Ia Fukuda is a Japanese native studying in the UK. Having lived in Japan all her life, she has had the chance to eat the fish. Ia said: “To be honest I’ve never worried about the poison in fugu. I think that’s because I never saw any news relating to people dying from it”

It is true that nowadays it is less common to get food poisoning from fugu because of the rules and regulations that the Japanese government have now put in place to handle it. (yes, the government!). The Japanese government has created a system where in order to prepare fugu, you need to have a special license. This is to ensure the proper removal of the poison from the fish. It is now a law that only licensed fugu handlers can prepare it and severe punishments are in place for the improper handling of it. Handling fugu is so serious that it can take up to five years to get a license. 

Yukari Sakamoto is a chef and has a business with her husband conducting culinary tours of Tokyo’s shops and food markets.  Yukari said: “I don’t know the process to get licensed but I do understand that it’s not easy and the examination is quite strict, I would never consider trying to open fugu due to the poisons in the liver.”

The process of preparing fugu is very delicate and must be handled with the utmost care. Fugu handlers must remove the parts with poison in it very carefully and wash away the blood with water. Once they have removed all the poisonous parts of the fish, they must legally keep them in a lockable storage container and burn them. They can alternatively find another way to dispose of them as long as the method is not a danger to health.

The fish is commonly available in restaurants and supermarkets all over Japan. Despite its availability, it is forbidden for people to consume it in their homes.

So why is it so popular? Well, many people like the rush of it. To know that this could potentially be the last meal that you eat seems to push people towards it even more. In another region, fugu fish is called ‘fuku’ which in Japanese means fortune. Therefore, some Japanese people believe eating the fish will bring you good luck. Reading this reason might seem quite contradicting due to the fact that fugu is one of the most poisonous fishes in the world however, the risk of food poisoning or death is much lower now. 

Sakomoto gives her reasoning for eating the fish: “It’s more than a taste for me, it’s about the texture. 

Surprisingly, fugu has a lot of health benefits. It is low in fat, high in protein and a good source of vitamin B12 and vitamin D. They also contain a lot of collagen and are full of fiber. So, with all these benefits, it’s no surprise why it is so popular.

Katayama talk about the first time she tried fugu: “The most memorable occasion was when I visited Shimoneski is Yamaguchi Prefecture, the home of fugu- the most famous port for the fish. At a restaurant, I was served fugu literally from head to tail with various cooking methods, including sashimi, hot pot and crunch tail accompanied by a beautiful local sake”

Sakomoto said: “My father-in-law catches it sometimes when he goes fishing in Tokyo Bay. When he brings his boat back to the pier there is a fishmonger who is licensed to take out the liver. My father-in-law will them make a hot pot with the fugu with lots of vegetables” 

Fugu can be consumed in many different ways, with the three most common styles being Tessa, Techhiri and Karaage. 

Tessa is the sashimi style fugu where the fish is thinly sliced and arranged in a floral pattern. The meat is cut so thinly that you can see the plate through it. Techirri is a ‘fugu hotpot’. Japanese people would describe Techirri as a perfect winter dish. This is where the bones and the meat of the fugu are mixed with various vegetables in a pot with dried seaweed broth. Karaage is simply deep-fried fugu.

Katayama said: “The style of serving represented the sustainable and healthy way of consuming food and I loved the experience”

Those who really want to get the thrill of eating it will go for a hot sake mixed with a teaspoon of the fugu’s testees which is one of the most poisonous organs. Sale is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice. Apparently, it is supposed to give you some sort of buzz.

Despite the high demand for it, fugu is considered a luxury fish and is very expensive. Sakamoto said: “It is expensive so we only eat it for a special occasion.” 

So, what does the fish actually taste like? The fish is said to have a distinct flavour and texture. Sakamoto said that it was ‘fresh and chewy’. However, the taste of the fish may depend on the way that it is cooked. Sliced fugu has a refreshing, light taste whereas when it is served as sashimi, it has a firm texture.

Now with all this information about fugu, would you still take the risk and indulge in the dish yourself? Well, if you do, you’ll know where to go.