Fugu Without Tetrodotoxin is like Nascar Racing without the Possibility of Crashes

Recently in the London Daily Telegraph:
"An aquaculture company based in the southern prefecture of Ehime (Japan) said it had raised 50,000 non-poisonous fugu at a fish farm."
fugu.jpgIn my book Absinthe and Flamethrowers, there's quite a bit of rumination upon why people purposefully eat dangerous foods. I'm not talking about foods that are just unhealthy like the 1400 calorie Hardee's Monster Thickburger, but foods that do or might actually contain poison or biological hazards if not handled with precision and experience.

The list is surprisingly long and includes ackee (a Jamaican favorite,) pokeweed (a southern US boiled green,) and casu marsu (the fabled larva-laden cheese of Sardinian sheepherders.) But the tops among all is fugu, the sushi made from the flesh of the tiger pufferfish. Certain internal organs of the fish contains extravagant amounts of ultra powerful nerve poison tetrodotoxin, so one's first meal with inexpertly prepared fugu sashimi is certainly one's last.

But that's why people want it. It's not about the food, I guess as much as the preparation and eating ritual, and what those ceremonies mean to the diner. Take the poison out of the fish and you may as well be eating kani kama.

As far as I know, no one has yet learned how to remove the tetrodoxin from the flesh of the only other animal that has it, the rough skinned newt, although newts probably make for lousy nigiri.


  1. I’ve always wondered how the Japanese figured out that a) blow fish is potentially edible and b) how to prepare it properly so it is actually edible.

    You’d think after all your friends died after eating blow fish that maybe, you know, you shouldn’t eat it.

    1. “You’d think after all your friends died after eating blow fish that maybe, you know, you shouldn’t eat it.”

      I’m imagining situations where desperate famine drives entire villages to eat absolutely anything they catch, even that deadly fugu, because we’re all starving to death and losing our minds and what else can we do?

  2. From what I’ve heard, fugu is superlatively bland, and in fact the difficulty in finding any actual taste is meant to be a positive quality. I wonder if that still holds true for non-toxic fugu, or if that’s a rationalising excuse.

  3. My understanding is that consuming a sublethal amount of the toxin is what is desired (and what makes the preparation so difficult). The sensation of the toxin is pleasant and is why connoisseurs seek out the fish.

    But I have no first hand experience nor have I received a direct report from an eater of the blowfish. So I would be interested in confirmation.

  4. I did my grade 13 independent chemistry project on tetrodotoxin. This was in 1989. Other than the somewhat sensationalised “Serpent and the Rainbow” the only books I could find at the local university’s medical library were medical journal archives translated from Japanese on fugu, TTX, and a related compound called saxitoxin.

    There were some interesting historical references that popped up. Symptoms reflect dosage, and Japanese coroners of antiquity were apparently thorough enough to notice ‘barely there’ breathing and heartbeat enough not to bury the patient too rapidly.

    They developed the practice of letting apparent deaths lie for a few extra days, to see if they recovered.

    Also, only certain parts of the fish are potentially fatal, as the toxin is actually produced by a parasite (bacteria?) that collects in the usual places (liver, reproductive organs, etc) Properly prepared, or from the other parts of the fish, you experience a sort of numbing ‘buzz’ kind of like hot sauce, with a mildly narcotic afteraffect (though I’ve yet to try it myself)

    As for risk, thrill-seekers do many more dangerous things. Drinking and other drugs involve risks. If avoiding death or serious injury was the primary goal, avoiding cars (as a pedestrian, passenger or driver) would decrease your risk the most. As this is not practical, people shrug it all off.

    — GimpWii

    1. It’s a bacteria, of type Pseudomonas unless they’ve changed that. I wouldn’t really call it a parasite – the only reason it lives inside pufferfish is because they’ve specifically adapted to cultivate it. It’s a beneficial relationship except when it attracts danger-loving diners.

      Actually a few other animals have done the same: not just newts, but also blue-ringed octopuses and others. Tetrodotoxin also shows up in some algae blooms but I last I checked they didn’t know if it came from symbiotic bacteria or the algae themselves.

      @ Karl #3:
      It’s hard to imagine a case where pufferfish were the difference between living and dying, so they ended up trying different pieces of them. They’re not the most common fish, and from what I’ve heard, they’re not the best to eat. They are very charming, though.

  5. Also, remove the parasite and you remove the toxin, not unlike western pig farming has done for certain worms.

    — GimpWii

  6. As has been noted plain fugu sashimi can be a bit on the bland side, but a full presentation will probably include a variety of organ dishes, at least a soup. And there are condiments of course.

    And while the fugu hype cycle has certainly been churning these last couple of years, a mildly somatic (and chef-dependent) buzz does exist.

    But TTX-free fugu is just another piece of fish, and sure won’t command the price of the regular variety.

  7. Oh, what a sad day for humanity when fugu loses it’s mystique because someone invented a less dangerous kind.

  8. I don’t think people only want to eat Fugu because of the danger. Sure, that might add a bit to the experience, but people also want to eat Kobe beef, which is not even remotely dangerous by comparison. Fugu just tastes really freakin’ good. Not that I’ve had it, it’s just what I’ve heard.

    I wholeheartedly support the non-poisonous Fugu, and hope to eat some in my lifetime. I’ll actually prefer to eat the non-poisonous variety, as I won’t worry myself to death over whether the chef messed up or not.

    The question is what if the poison Fugu gets mixed up with the non-toxic variety? Then the chef will prepare it with no worry about poison, but the poison is there! Oh no!

    The real solution is the same solution we have now. Don’t order it unless someone else at the table/restaurant is also eating it at the same time. Let them taste first. If they’re ok, then eat.

  9. Man, I’m kind of disappointed that it tastes fairly bland. And here I was hoping that dangerous-activity fitness signaling was at least going to be exceedingly tasty!

  10. It’s not only the thrill of eating something potentially dangerous, it’s the tingling body sensation one gets from properly prepared Fugu. A skilled sushi chef knows just how much toxin to include to give the desired body rush.

  11. I had fugu last year at Tsuki in Chicago, one of the few restaurants in the country that has a licensed fugu chef, and is therefore allowed to serve it. The meal consisted of fugu sashimi, fugu fin tea, and soup with vegetables, monkfish and fugu.

    It was very, very expensive.

    The cost and the danger were central to the experience and make it completely impossible to be objective. The flavour of the fugu sashimi was wonderful, but not strong or especially unique. It made me wonder whether or not the flavour was entirely a consequence of the expense. When you are paying the price of a maki for one small sliver of flesh you tend to focus on the flavour, and really linger on the experience. If I concentrated that hard on a piece of super white tuna I have little doubt that the taste would be equally phenomenal. So half of the experience seemed derived from the expense.

    The other half of the experience is about the poison. I fully accept that I ate this fish out of bravado, and the thrill of the potential danger also helped concentrate the experience of the evening. We knew it was safe and had no real worry about dying, but it was still a concern. The other, more important aspect to the poison is that an experienced fugu chef will leave slight traces of the poison in the fish, and so you can sometimes experience a tingling sensation in the mouth and lips.

    I wouldn’t bother with fugu again. It’s a macho extravagance, and if you are looking for delicious food it is certainly not spectacular. That said, I am glad that I did it, just for the dubious pleasure of the bragging rights.

  12. I live in a major fugu producing area, and there are tons of misconceptions. First, most farm-raised fugu (the kind most people can afford) have very little toxin, and chefs are licensed and know what they are doing. No tingling. Some rich idiots pay huge prices for wild fugu and then eat the liver and takes their chances, but hardly anyone else. Otherwise it’s no big deal….people will even let their kids eat it.

    Second, it’s delicious, especially fried.

    What they’re doing in Ehime is farming fugu with absolutely no toxin, which is a good thing. I love fugu and this will make it cheaper.

  13. I live in Oita, Japan which is known for having the absolute best fugu in Japan (in the city of Usuki). Being a local food, it’s relatively “cheap” (an average meal will be about 4000-5000 yen, and a really good one from 10,000 to 20,000 yen) so I have it several times a year.

    1) Fugu itself has a very mild flavor, and is easily overwhelmed by the condiments. In Oita it is often served with kabosu, ponsu, momijioroshi (daikon and chili pepper), green onions, and fugu liver pate. The condiments are key and make the dish something really special.
    2) As with most fish wild fugu is much more tasty than the farmed variety
    3) The months for best tasting fugu are generally in late fall to early spring when the ocean temps get cooler. Late summer fugu has less flavor and more rubbery, not really worth it.
    4) The chef matters. Over washing fugu makes it really bland, under washing makes your mouth numb and could be deadly…
    5) Locally the macho aspect is nonexistent. There are many licensed chefs here and it is served and eaten for the flavor regularly. You can even find fugu in some supermarkets. There have been almost no deaths from a licensed chef, ignorant day fishermen who take one home for themselves are another matter (they are a common catch here so know your fish!).
    6) There is more than just sashimi. Deep fried fugu, tempura fugu, fugu pate, fugu hotpot, fugu skin, pickled fugu eggs, and my favorite hot fugu fin sake.
    7) There are 22 types of fugu approved for eating, with the best and most common being Tora-fugu.
    8) The ocean sunfish is also of the same fugu family, but dosen’t have any poison. The taste is similar but the consistency is completely different. Makes a decent hotpot.

    I shudder to think of what passes for fugu outside of Japan. If you want the absolute real thing, come down to Usuki, Japan for a taste you will never forget.

  14. there was a pufferfish in an aquarium at a bar I used to go to. it was very smart and had lots of personality. it knew which bartender fed it and would follow her from one end of the bar to the other. its eyes were flecked with an opal quality and it was easily the cutest, most charming fish I ever met.

    as for pokeweed, this marks the first place I’ve ever seen it mentioned aside from the family I used to pick it for in Nashville. here again, the deadly was beautiful and strange-looking. it looks like bright violet bamboo with broader, dark green leaves. the stalks grow upright but are soft, though. you could crush ’em ‘twixt thumb and forefinger. as I recall, the leaves had to be boiled to remove the poison (the preferred method for the preparation of all greens down south, anyhow.) they made something called “poke salad” out of it, but for whatever reason i never had any myself.

  15. Jack Vance, the science fiction writer, has a fugu-like poisonous fruit called “charnay” in his Kirth Gersen / Demon Princes series. A fictional gastronome named Michael Wiest, journalist at the magazine Gustations, has this to say: “Of all the good things to be had in this bountiful universe, there is nothing to exceed a fine ripe charnay, except two or three more of the same.” Gillian Seal – chef, musician, and bon vivant – decides: “If one must die—and this seems to be the general fate — why perform the act in mean and vulgar style? Rather, die splendidly, in a manner all will envy, engorged with charnay.” Charnay is “a purple fruit with rough skin. Inside, tubes full of poison run along the husk.” The pulp of the fruit is exquisite, but it requires a meticulous preparation by expert chefs to extract the venomous tubes.

    This delicacy is to be found only on the planet Cytherea Tempestre, and that’s where, during a banquet held at the Wild Isle Inn, nine of the ten guests around the table meet their doom, their charnay having been deliberately incorrectly prepared, a murder weapon. Leon Wolke, journalist writing for the magazine Cosmopolis, “a nonpoisonous variety of charnay could easily be developed, but this idea meets the adamant opposition of the Charnay Growers Association” He concludes, “Is it possible that the admittedly fine flavor of charnay is enhanced by the presence of awful danger?” Wolke dies two weeks after the publication of this article, dining on…what else? Incorrectly prepared charney.

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