Not only as one of the most expensive dishes, but as one of the deadliest as well, fugu sashimi 河豚刺身 is renowned around the world. The Japanese has the following proverb to express their love for this delicacy:
fugu wa kuitashi inochi was oshishi
Literally translated as: “I want to eat fugu, but my life is dear”. Its English equivalent is “Honey is sweet, but the bee stings”.
Fugu 河豚 is Japanese for “puffer fish”, a species that contains the poisonous tetrodotoxin in its organs. Fugu is caught mainly in the Pacific Ocean, and is highly popular during winter, because the fish becomes fatter to endure the cold ocean water. The largest market for fugu in Japan is Shimonoseki, a city in the southwestern tip of Honshū. How it is prepared you can see in the following BBC documentary.
After two or three years of apprenticeship, chefs are allowed to serve this dish. Not many pass the final test. Once in the possession of a certification, fugu chefs have to carefully remove 11 parts of the fish. And with carefully, I mean that one wrong cut can poison their clients. It is a matter of life and death.
One gram of tetrodotoxin can kill 500 people, and once consumed, there is no known antidote to save you from asphyxiation, paralysis and death (6.8%). Every year, between 20 and 40 people in Japan are suffering from fugu intoxication. But it must be said that only in exceptional cases poisoning happens in a restaurant. Most incidents involve fishermen who eat their fancy catch.
One famous case is the death of kabuki legend Bandō Mitsugorō VIII. He ordered no less than 4 portions of fugu liver to prove that he was safe for the poisoned stuff. But when he returned to his hotel room, he died after hours of paralysis and convulsions.
A recent case is the suspension of a chef at a two-Michelin star restaurant, who served fugu liver to a client. The client specifically asked for it. Sometimes Japanese obedience is a bit too much… The client survived, though.
Facts for Fun
– To safeguard his health, the Japanese Emperor is not allowed to eat fugu.