- Fugu is a delicacy across Japan, but the tetrodotoxin found in the fish is more toxic than cyanide.
- Chefs must undergo rigorous training, then take an in-depth exam to be legally allowed to prepare the poisonous puffer fish.
- The Japanese eat 10,000 tons of fugu each year.
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There are over 120 species of puffer fish, and 22 different kinds are approved by the Japanese government for use in restaurants. But one is more prized, and more poisonous, than the others: torafugu, or tiger puffer fish.
Wild torafugu is often found at high-end restaurants, where it’s served as perfectly thinly sliced sashimi, deep-fried, and even used to make a hot sake called hirezake. Yamadaya has been serving puffer fish for over 100 years. Their fugu is caught in southern Japan and airlifted alive to their Tokyo restaurants.
In Haedomari Market the fugu is auctioned off using a bag and hidden hand signals. Each potential buyer puts their hand in the bag and makes their bid secretly, before a successful bidder is chosen.
When selling such a dangerous food, safety is paramount. In 2018, a supermarket accidentally sold five packets of the fish that hadn’t had the poisonous liver removed, and the town used its missile-alert system to warn residents.
The tetrodotoxin found in fugu is more toxic than cyanide, and each year about 20 people are poisoned from badly prepared fish.
It takes a lot of skill and training to prepare the fish safely and know which parts are poisonous.
The poisonous parts can vary by species, and hybrid species are appearing now that are even harder to tell apart. One of the hardest things to distinguish between can be the female fugu’s ovaries, which are extremely toxic, and the male’s testicles, which are a delicacy.
The Japanese government tightly control who can prepare fugu, and chefs need to take an extensive exam before they’re legally allowed to serve the fish. This rigorous regulation means that while the fish can be lethal, far more people die from eating oysters than fugu each year.
All of the skill and training that goes into preparing this fish increases the price. The fish is killed seconds before preparation. And while the process looks gruesome as the muscles continue to spasm, the fish is dead.
This method of killing the fish means that the meat stays fresh for longer, and at Yamadaya, the fugu is aged for 24 hours before it’s served. So what does it actually taste like?
There’s another reason tiger fugu is getting more expensive: overfishing.
Tiger puffer fish is near threatened, and in 2005 the Japanese government limited its fishing quotas and seasons. Another popular edible species across Japan, the Chinese puffer fish, has declined in population by 99.9% over the last 45 years.
Farmed versions are much cheaper, and many more affordable chain fugu restaurants are starting to appear, but the farmed version is difficult to raise, and many consumers say it doesn’t taste as good.
Wild fugu’s high price guarantees that it is safely prepared by an expert chef, and when you’re dealing with a potentially deadly fish, that price is reassuringly expensive.
With thanks to Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in July 2019.