Risky Japanese Delicacy : puffer fish (Fugu)

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  • The Japanese delicacy fugu, or as known as blowfish, is so poisonous that the smallest mistake in its preparation could be fatal. But Tokyo’s city government is planning to ease restrictions that allow only highly trained and licensed chefs to serve this dish.

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    The restaurant preparation of fugu is strictly controlled by law in Japan and several other countries, and only chefs who have qualified after three or more years of rigorous training are allowed to prepare the fish. Domestic preparation occasionally leads to accidental death.

    Fugu is served as sashimi and chirinabe. Some people consider that the liver is the tastiest part, but it is also the most poisonous, and serving this organ in restaurants was banned in Japan in 1984. Fugu has become one of the most celebrated and notorious dishes in Japanese cuisine.

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    Fugu contains lethal amounts of the poison tetrodotoxin in its organs, especially the liver, the ovaries, and the eyes, whereas skin is usually non-poisonous. The poison, a sodium channel blocker, paralyzes the muscles while the victim stays fully conscious. The victim is unable to breathe, and eventually dies from asphyxiation. Fugu poison is 1200 times stronger than cyanide, and there is no known antidote. The standard treatment is to support the respiratory and circulatory systems until the poison is metabolized and excreted by the victim’s body.

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    Advances in research and aquaculture have allowed some farmers to mass-produce safe fugu. Researchers surmised that fugu’s tetrodotoxin came from eating other animals that held tetrodotoxin -laden bacteria, and that the fish develops immunity over time. Many farmers now produce ‘poison-free’ fugu by keeping the fugu away from the bacteria. Usuki, a town in Oita prefecture, has become known for selling non-poisonous fugu.

    But if you want to eat fugu, I recommend you to eat it in Japan. Because Japan is the only country that is very strict to allow some chefs to serve it. A dish of fugu typically costs between ¥2000 (US$20) and ¥5000 (US$50); a full course fugu meal can cost ¥10.000-20.000 (US$100-200). The expense encourages chefs to slice the fish very carefully to obtain the largest possible amount of the meat. The special knife, called fugu-hiki, is usually stored separately from other knives.