Fugu (Puffer Fish)
What is Fugu?
Fugu (foo-goo) is a dish made from the Puffer fish (blowfish) or Porcupine fish that has achieved an almost mythological status in western cuisine. It has become synonymous with risk taking, a culinary Russian roulette, due to that, if incorrectly prepared, a diner risks death from even a single bite due to a potent neurotoxin found in the fish. While the meat itself is not innately poisonous, the organs contain lethal amounts of a particular tetrodotoxin which may contaminate the meat if the fish is not prepared by a chef skilled in the art of fugu preparation. Death is not an uncommon result for those who accidentally consume the toxin, to which there is no antidote.
Fugu is a delicacy which only licensed chefs are allowed to prepare in Japan. An approximately three year apprenticeship is required before a chef is allowed to take the examination to ensure they have the proper skills to prepare the dish safely. Approximately 70% of the applicants fail their examination, which is quite complicated; however this ensures that only the most skilled and knowledgeable of applicants become certified for the task. The dish is somewhat expensive, with servings in the range of US$20 to US$50 and a full course meal costing up to US$200. Due to the specialty nature of the dish, a chef is careful to prepare the fish gathering the most meat possible, and a special knife called a fugu hiki is employed for the task. The fish is usually served as sashimi, called fugu sashi, or tessa, and is sliced thinly and placed so that the pattern of the plate is visible through the fish. The organs are sometimes available as fugu no shirako, however they are specially treated to remove the toxins and are not commonly available.
The poisonous nature of the dish comes from marine microorganisms that produce the neurotoxin, which travels up to food chain, eventually finding its way into the puffer fish. While the fish is itself immune to the toxin, it nevertheless concentrates the substance in its organs and skin, much to the chagrin of would-be predators, or sushi enthusiasts. It is reported that the small amount of toxin that finds its way into the meat of the fish slightly numbs the lips and mouth during the meal, and some even claim a mild state of euphoria results from eating the dish. An element of danger may also heighten the experience, as even a minor mistake on the part of the chef may easily kill a diner, and in Japan, a number of individuals die each year from fugu poisoning due to incorrectly prepared fugu, usually by amateurs. On a side note, it is now believed that this particular tetrodotoxin is used in the Caribbean by Voodoo practitioners in the creation of their supposed ‘zombie powder,’ as just the right dose may induce a paralytic state resembling death, which will last for hours or days.
Is Fugu Now a Safe Bet?
Fugu can be found in many places found as sushi and sashimi, while the fins and skin are also served in a myriad of ways alongside the main dish. Due to the demand, there is now a significant rise in farm-raised puffer fish, which lacks any traces of the tetrodotoxin, and therefore any risk to the consumer. As fugu is a relatively mild tasting dish, without the element of risk, some question why a person would bother spending the tidy sum to order the dish when there is a lot more on the menu that may be more flavorful. That, however, is a choice for the individual.
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