The Russian Roulette of Food- Japan’s Deadly Delicacy
Take a moment to ask yourself: would you ever play a round of Russian roulette? As we’ve covered previously in our video Who Invented Russian Roulette and Has Anyone Ever Actually Played It? while partaking in this extreme pastime is, to put it mildly, ill advised, real-life cases, though tragic, are thankfully rare. Yet every year, thousands of people willingly engage in the culinary equivalent of Russian roulette, shelling out good money for a meal that may very well leave them dead before dessert. Enter the fascinating world of Fugu, Japan’s tantalizingly deadly delicacy.
Fugu, Japanese for “river pig”, refers to the flesh of pufferfish and all manner of dishes prepared from it. Pufferfish, also known as blowfish or globefish, belong to the family tetradontidae. There are 193 known species found in oceans around the world, though the most commonly consumed in Japanese cuisine belong to the genera Takifugu, Lagocephalus, Sphoeroides, and Diodon – better known as porcupine fish. Unlike most fish, pufferfish do not swim by flexing their entire bodies lengthwise but instead propel themselves entirely with their pectoral, dorsal, anal, and caudal fins. While this makes them extremely maneuverable, it also makes them slow and unable to evade predators except through short, powerful bursts of speed. To compensate for this lack of mobility, pufferfish have evolved a number of unique defences. When attacked, they quickly fill their highly-elastic stomachs with water, inflating themselves into a large, nearly-spherical shape that is much harder for predators to bite into and swallow. In addition, all pufferfish are covered in small, extremely sharp spines that normally lie flat against their bodies and only deploy when the fish inflates, meaning that even if a predator manages to grab hold of the pufferfish, it will likely find itself choking to death on what scientists technically refer to as a ‘spiny ball of NOPE.’ And if somehow the predator manages to swallow its prey, the pufferfish has yet another nasty surprise in store, for its tissues – particularly the liver, intestines, and ovaries – are saturated in a lethal poison known as tetrodotoxin or TTX.
TTX is a powerful neurotoxin 1,200 times deadlier than cyanide, and works by blocking the sodium channels of nerve cells. This blocks sodium ions from entering the cell and thus prevents the nerve from firing. Symptoms of TTX poisoning begin with tingling and numbness of the lips and tongue, followed by dizziness, vomiting, rapid heart rate, falling blood pressure, and eventually muscle paralysis. The toxin kills by paralyzing the diaphragm, leading to respiratory paralysis and suffocation. Terrifyingly, TTX does not cross the blood-brain barrier, meaning that victims remain fully awake as they suffocate to death. Nor is there an antidote, the only known treatment being to support the victim’s breathing with a ventilator until the toxin is metabolized and the effects wear off. Typically victims who survive past 24 hours go on to make full recoveries, though comas lasting several days are not uncommon. Untreated, however, TTX poisoning can kill in as little as 45 minutes, and the average pufferfish contains enough TTX to kill 30 adult humans.
TTX is closely related to other, even deadlier marine toxins including conotoxin, found in the venomous cone snail, and saxitoxin or STX, the agent responsible for breakouts of paralytic shellfish poisoning. With a lethal dose 60 times smaller than TTX, STX is the only marine toxin ever to be developed into a chemical weapon, with large amounts being stockpiled by the U.S. military in the 1950s and 60s. An STX-tipped needle hidden in a silver dollar was even issued to pilots of the Lockheed U-2 spy plane so they could commit suicide if shot down and captured. Such a coin was carried by pilot Francis Gary Powers when he was shot down over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960, though he opted not to use it. In addition to TTX, many pufferfish also contain high levels of STX, though in both cases the toxin is not produced by the animal itself but by bacteria eaten by the fish and which live symbiotically in its gut. Similarly, paralytic shellfish poisoning is caused not by shellfish themselves, but by blooms of toxic algae which contaminate the surrounding sea life. Pufferfish raised in captivity or native to areas without these microorganisms, such as the Atlantic Northern Puffer and Pacific Oblong Blowfish, do not have toxins in their tissues.
Despite the extreme risks involved, fugu has been consumed in Japan for 2,000 years, though at various times during the Edo and Meiji periods of 1603-1912 its sale and preparation were banned by the authorities. The Japanese emperor has also traditionally been banned from eating fugu, an unofficial prohibition which persists to this day. Yet in more remote areas where government regulation was weaker, the preparation and consumption of fugu persisted, eventually evolving into an elaborate and highly-specialized art form.
The full fugu meal experience can cost upwards of ¥51,000 or $450 USD, and features multiple courses with the fish prepared in various ways. The first course is usually fugu sashimi, in which the raw flesh is sliced into paper-thin, almost transparent slices – a technique known as usuzukuri. These slices are typically arranged into elaborate images such as chrysanthemum blossoms or cranes – symbols of good fortune and longevity in Japanese culture – and served with a spicy dipping sauce made of soy sauce, scallions, daikon radish, red pepper, and lemon. The sashimi course is followed by a variety of dishes, including fugu-chiri, a stew of fish and vegetables boiled in broth; shabu-shabu, a casserole of fish, grilled bean curd, mushrooms, and leeks; and finally hire-zake, grilled fugu fins dipped in hot sake. The testes of the male fugu are also highly prized, believed by many Japanese men to enhance virility. In order to ensure they get repeat customers, fugu chefs take great care to cut out every trace of the fugu’s deadly organs and serve only the flesh and skin. But sometimes a very small amount of toxin – up to one part in 5,000 – remains, imparting a mild tingling sensation in the diner’s lips which fugu connoisseurs consider an essential part of the experience. However, in many cases this is merely the effect of the spicy dipping sauce and not the fish itself.
But this flirtation with tetrodotoxin comes at a cost, and well into the Twentieth Century hundreds of people died each year from improperly prepared fugu. One of the dish’s most famous victims was legendary Kabuki actor Bando Mitsugoro, who on January 16, 1975, went to a restaurant with friend and ordered four portions fugu liver – the deadliest part of the animal. Despite his friends’ and the chef’s best efforts to dissuade him, Mitsugoro claimed he had developed a natural resistance to the toxin and eagerly downed his meal. To the surprise of absolutely no-one, he died four hours later in his hotel room – but not before, we like to imagine, someone in his entourage had the chance to tell him I told you so.
By the time of Matsugoro’s death, however, yearly fugu deaths had already declined significantly, having reached a peak of 176 in 1958. That was the year the fugu industry was finally regulated by the Japanese government. Since then, chefs must earn a license in order to prepare and serve fugu – a rigorous process which involves serving a 2-3 year apprenticeship and a three-part licensing examination consisting of a written test, a fish identification test, and finally a practical test in which the prospective chef must prepare and – in the ultimate test of confidence – eat their own meal of fugu. Slip-ups are rewarded with failure – or, in rare cases, death. So demanding are these examinations that only 35% of applicants pass. But those who do are highly skilled, able to prepare and serve a fish according to the 30 government-mandated steps in as little as 20 minutes.
In addition to mandating the licensing of chefs, the Government also bans the sale of whole fugu fish to the public, while markets selling prepared fugu must prominently display their license documents and properly dispose of discarded fugu organs. Fugu fishing is also tightly controlled to protect populations from depletion, with most fish being harvested in the winter non-mating season when they are fattest and their organs the least toxic.Thus regulated, the fugu trade has grown into a sizeable industry, with tens of thousands of licensed fugu chefs across Japan serving around 10,000 tons of the fish each year. Much of the fugu trade is centred in the city of Shimonoseki, where, depending on the season, the fish sells for up to ¥5,000 or $45 USD a kilogram. The number of fugu poisonings has also significantly dropped since 1958, hovering at around 50 per year. However, almost none of these deaths involve fugu prepared by licensed chefs, and are instead related to deliberate suicide or fugu improperly prepared by fishermen and other inexperienced people. More often than not the culprit is bootleg fugu-churi stew made from toxic – and illegal – livers, ovaries, and other discarded organs. Fugu poisoning is also not unique to Japan, with cases being reported wherever pufferfish are found, including Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and even several eastern U.S. states like Florida, Virginia, New York, and New Jersey.
But for all its danger and mystique, what does fugu actually taste like? Well, as it turns out, not much. As Noel Vietmeyer, a reporter for National Geographic, wrote in 1984:
“Strangely I feel no danger, but with every bite I sense the thrill. The meat has no fiber; it’s almost like gelatin. It is very light in taste, there is only the slightest hint that it is a seafood.”
So what, then, explains the irresistible cachet of fugu? For some, the mild, nonexistent taste is irrelevant, the appeal lying entirely in the sense of danger. As one Japanese news correspondent explains:
“It is an addiction to danger, pushing to the edge of death. They want to enjoy it a little more, and a little more. The lure of fugu is the sensation that though you know it won’t happen, it just might be you this time.”
Nobuyoshi Kuraoka, owner of the celebrated Nippon restaurant on East 52nd Street in New York City, puts it rather more poetically, stating:
“The taste is elusive. It is like the flowering cherry, the symbol of Japanese idealism, the Japanese mind. “Fugu comes from the Japanese code, from the samurai. People are more concerned how to die than how to live.”
For others, the appeal lies somewhere else entirely, as Kuraoka further explains:
“That trace [of toxin] will just stimulate the blood circulation. That will make you feel happy a little bit. Through my experience it is a strong aphrodisiac. We’ll probably be asking the husbands’ permission before we let their wives order it.”
But while strict regulations have ironically rendered fugu one of the safest fish products, its deadly reputation precedes it wherever attempts are made to import it, and the fish has been banned in the United States since 1980. But in September 2008, Nobuyoshi Kuraoka succeeded in convincing the Japanese regulatory authorities and U.S. customs to allow him to import several boxes of fugu and fly in fugu chef Sakae Hata to prepare them. The meal was served to a select group of diners including Japan’s Consul General Hidetoshi Ukawa and several New York reporters. However, the sensational headlines that followed, such as“Aren’t You Dying to Try Japanese Fugu?” and “They Lived to Talk About It” caught the attention of the FDA, who promptly seized and quarantined the remainder of Kuraoka’s shipment. Despite Kuraoka and other chefs’ insistence that there hasn’t been a death from properly-prepared fugu in decades and that they would only import Tiger Fugu – the least toxic of the commonly-consumed species – the FDA continues to stand firm on its decision, with Raymond Newberry of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition stating that the ban will remain in effect:
“…until they can prove it is safe, and they can’t do that. There is no way to prove every fish is free of the toxin. It is not uniform, there could be a contaminant, and there is no analytic method to detect a contaminant.”
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Cromley, Marian, There’s No Fooling With the Fugu, The Washington Post, May 11, 1986, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/food/1986/05/11/theres-no-fooling-with-the-fugu/74d7b8e1-13f9-4119-aed4-eb07bd84ed5d/
Japan’s Fugu is a Delicacy – But Is It Poisson or Poison? People, January 22, 1990, https://people.com/archive/japans-fugu-is-a-delicacy-but-is-it-poisson-or-poison-vol-33-no-3/
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