Food & Wine

The subtle art of eating blowfish

Updated: 10 Jun 2009
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In the 18th century, the famous Japanese poet Yosa no Buson expressed his love for eating blowfish in this simple but elegant haiku:


I cannot see her tonight.

I have to give her up

So I will eat fugu.


Like the great poets of old and new, Buson is no different in that he yearned for a woman that was not his love. However, in the great tradition of finding comfort in food, he instead turns to fugu in order to mend his broken heart.


Indeed, there is perhaps no Japanese art as subtle and beautiful as that of eating blowfish. Some people swear by the tea ceremony. Others prefer Zen Buddhism. For me however, it's blowfish, the deadliest of delicacies.


A famous Japanese story tells the tale of three men, who prepared a dish of fugu but were afraid to taste it out of fear of death. Driven to the point of despair, the wisest amongst them serves the dish to a beggar in order to test its potency. Later, when the men return to find that the beggar is still alive, they breathe a sigh of relief, and immediately dine on the fugu.


Like most Japanese folk tales, trickery and deceit are ultimately vanquished by wisdom and craft. This particular tale being no different, the beggar secretly hides away the stew hoping that the three men would eat it first. After seeing that they were alive and well, the wise beggar retires to the back streets, and eats his fugu with peace of mind.


This of course brings about the question: why exactly is fugu so deadly?


Blowfish packs a lethal punch in the form of tetrodotoxin, an extremely potent neurotoxin that paralyzes its victims while they are still conscious. To put things into perspective, this means that you are fully aware as your throat closes, your lungs deflate and drift slowly into death's arms.


There is no known cure.



 Dont be cheated by their lovely appearance, If you're unlucky, they will kill you ten times over.


Of course, Japan is a country of safety and order, so thankfully the majority of deaths occur when untrained people catch and prepare the fish, accidentally poisoning themselves in the process. The most dangerous culprit is the liver, which is regarded as the tastiest morsel of the blowfish. If you're lucky, the liver will contain only enough poison to numb the palette and raise the adrenaline. If you're unlucky however, the liver will contain enough poison to kill you ten times over.


Of course, Japan is also a country of pride and honor, which is way blowfish liver (though illegal) is one of the most coveted of meals. In 1975, the famous Kabuki actor and 'Living National Treasure' Bandou Mitsugorou VIII requested four servings of liver from a fugu chef in Kyoto. Unable to refuse the request of someone of such an elevated stature, the chef served the livers to Bandou Mitsugorou VIII.


He died just minutes after - with his pride and honor intact of course.


Although illegal in Europe and all but a handful of restaurants in America, the subtle art of eating blowfish is still very much alive in modern Japan. Not surprisingly, eating fugu with a bunch of crazy companions is something that just sort of happens after spending too much time in Japan. It's equal parts stupidity and peril, with a healthy dash of self-reflection and humility thrown in.


And yes, before you post comments regarding my culinary background, I have in fact eaten fugu, and I will most likely eat it again.


(In case you're wondering, I did in fact survive with my nervous system intact).


 The author, Matthew Firestone is preparing fugu at home


The best time to eat fugu is in the winter, when blowfish pack on the pounds to beat the chill. Needless to say, this is also when the toxicity of the blowfish reaches its peak.


Prices rise. Restaurants are packed. Emergency rooms are on stand-by.


Making sure you don't meet your maker earlier than prescribed is the fugu chef, a man of exacting precision and immeasurable skill. With a calculated flick of the blade, the fugu chef separates the tender flesh from the poisonous internal organs.


To steal a line from a classic Simpsons episode:


'Poison. Poison. Poison. Tasty Fish.'


Since the late 1950s, only specially-licensed chefs are allowed to serve fugu to the public. Much like brain surgery and rocket science, not just any average Joe (or in this case average Haruki) can slice up a blowfish. Indeed, an aspiring fugu chef must first serve for several years as an apprentice before they are allowed to take the certification test.


Earning your fugu license consists of three parts: a written test, a species identification test and the practical. Although most applicants breeze through the first two parts, less than two-thirds of apprentices are successful in preparing the blowfish for consumption. Thankfully, the examiners will notify the apprentice if he makes a mistake as not to lose any more students than is necessary.


(And you thought passing your calculus test was hard!)


Thankfully, the rigorous training process ensures that eating blowfish is a somewhat risk-free process. As testament, consider the fact that fugu is sometimes sold in supermarkets, so that you can enjoy eating fugu in the comfort of your own home. Then again, if you do get a bad batch, at least you can have the privilege of dying in your bed whilst surrounded by family and friends.


The high-price of fugu also prevents this deadly meal from becoming a daily staple. On average, a few strips of fugu sashimi costs upwards of ¥5000 (US$40), but can sometimes be found for as little as ¥2500 (US$20). With that said, the art of eating blowfish is somewhat more subtle than biting into a Big Mac, so trust me - spring for the better stuff. If you don't choose to heed my advice, at least make sure that the chef's license is prominently displayed in the restaurant.


(It should look something like this.)


Of course, even master chefs make mistakes from time to time - fictional or otherwise. In the Japanese smash hit and American cult classic Iron Chef, the last episode tragically ends when Chairman Kaga dies from fugu poisoning.


Accidents do happen.


Still hungry for blowfish? Thought you might be.


Much like choosing a good pizza joint or a romantic spot to sip a cocktail, your fugu experience can vary depending on the restaurant. Excellent fugu will have you begging for a second plate. Poor fugu will have you gasping for your last breath.


Truth be told, most fugu-eating takes place at specialty restaurants, which are fairly easy to identify even in the urban jungle that is Japan.


(Case in point – you don't have to speak Japanese to find this popular spot in Shibuya).



  Despite the danger, eating fugu fish is an art and challenge to some diners 


How do you know that a restaurant is serving fresh fugu? Simple.


Blowfish are kept alive in large aquariums prior to serving. If you ask politely, a chef will sometimes let you choose your fish, and then slice it up in front of you with a fugu-hiki (literally fugu-pulling; ふぐ引き), a specially designated knife that is only used for filleting blowfish. Think it's annoying when someone leaves peanut butter on your butter knife? How about a splash of neurotoxin on your steak knife.


If you really want to sample the full culinary spectrum of fugu, you're going to have to spend between ¥10,000 and ¥25,000 (US$80 to US$200). The centerpiece of this meal is fugu sashimi, which is usually extremely thinly sliced, and arranged in a decorative pattern on a porcelain plate. Although first-time consumers of fugu are surprised to discover that blowfish is rather tasteless compared to fish such as tuna or salmon, aficionados focus on the delicate texture and the elegant presentation.


Of course, a good fugu chef will dress up the dish with homemade soy sauce as well as a small dab of freshly grated wasabi to cleanse the palete and clear the sinuses. A great fugu chef will dress up the dish with a citrus-accented ponzu dipping sauce as well as a small dab of poison to numb the palette and clear the mind.


Accompaniments to fugu sashimi include a variety of blowfish organs and parts that you probably didn't think were edible. Blowfish fins can be flash-fried in hot sesame oil, and then served in a carafe of hot sake. Blowfish skin can de-spiked, crisped over a hot flame and then sprinkled over a fresh salad of white radish and cucumber. Blowfish testicles can be eaten like grapes - although it's something of an acquired taste, the flavor is reminiscent of salty milk. Delicious.


Well, that brings us to the end of the three-part series on the subtle art of eating blowfish. If I haven't yet been able to get your mouth watering and your stomach growling, stay tuned as I've only just begun to unlock the vast treasure trove of Japanese cuisine.


SOURCE: By Matthew Firestone (


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