Fugu-A poisonous fish that is prepared only by a fugu licensed chef

A diver hold two types of fugu fish.
A diver holding two types of fugu fish. The one on the left is the poisonous one, that is why he is holding it with glove.

There are 100 kinds of fugus around the world, all of them employ the puffing tactic.

Inhaling water into a special sac located in the esophagus, this homely looking fish expands into a formidable globe, covered with sharp spines that discourage any predator thinking of swallowing it.

Its changed appearance may startle an enemy, or it may exhale the water in order to force an elusive “meal” out of hiding in the sandy seabed.

Hence, very appropriate its English names: puffer, globefish, and blowfish.

In modern times, the fugu has claimed some lives each year.

Fugu preparers point out, however, that most of the cases involved amateurs who attempted to prepare the fish themselves.

Fugu got international attention when the Japanese tried to introduce the delicacy into the United States.

Permission to import was denied, and the news media labeled it “killer fish,” claiming that eating fugu is “death-defying dining.”

Was the claim valid?

The most poisonous fish you can eat

Picture of a prepared fugu dish.

In Japan fugu is a local delicacy.

Connoisseurs pay anywhere from $50 to $160 per person for a full-course fugu meal.

However, fugus contain a poison called tetrodotoxin, concentrated in the liver, ovaries, kidneys, and sometimes the skin of the fish.

Ten thousand mouse units, perhaps as much as could fit on the head of a pin, will kill an average-size person.

“It is perfectly safe to eat fugu,” says Shinichiro Nagashima, a third-generation fugu chef.

“We know which parts of the fish are poisonous, and they are disposed of by the proper authorities.

In over 30 years of fugu preparation in the Tokyo area, no one has ever died of fugu poisoning from fish prepared at a licensed shop.”

“Laws are strict,” continues Shinichiro.

“For example, if the organs are not disposed of in the proper way, the shop may be penalized by being closed down for a month. Or if a shop, even on demand, serves an illegal portion that causes a death, it will be forced to shut its doors for good. The rules governing fugu preparation and testing and licensing of the cooks in this area were initially developed by my grandfather. He pioneered fugu cuisine in the Greater Tokyo area during the 1950’s when it was already popular in western Japan.”

Shinichiro’s father, Yutaka, serves as a judge of aspiring fugu chefs.

He looks right at home as he talks in his shop, amid dried fugu lanterns dangling from the rafters.

“Training to be a fugu chef means getting a thorough knowledge of fugu anatomy and passing a stringent test that includes cleaning a fugu and identifying all of its parts in just 20 minutes.”

As Shinichiro takes up his knife to demonstrate how to clean a fugu, he suddenly turns into the very image of a man concentrating on his task at hand.

His father looks on and explains the parts of the fish.

Two stainless pans stand at the side of the cutting board.

Into one pan go the liver, kidneys, and other poisonous portions.

Into the other pan go the edible parts of the fish.

In a matter of minutes, thin white fillets are carved still thinner and arranged like transparent petals of a flower.

Grated radish with red pepper add to the color.

The elegant dish pleases both the eye and the palate.

The elder Mr. Nagashima smiles as he reminisces about the days when fugu was plentiful.

When I was a boy, fugu was not nearly as expensive as it is today. Since my father was a fugu chef, I carried it to school in my lunch box. Other children were eager to trade for my delicious lunch.”

Finally, fugu prepared by licensed chefs has been accepted as safe for consumption.

Fugu preparation, however, is definitely not do-it-yourself cuisine for a vacation fisherman.

If fugu puffs its way into your menu, it should be prepared by a licensed chef.

That is the only safe way to enjoy this small fish with the inflated reputation.