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Fugu is a Japanese word for pufferfish or blowfish, which refers to several types of fish (the most prized is the most poisonous, the tiger blowfish), and also the name of meals prepared from these fishes. What makes fugu interesting from so many perspectives is that most pufferfish contain a powerful neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin, which can cause paralysis, and if enough poison is ingested, may cause death. The preparation of fugu thus has to be carefully regulated to be certain very little of this poison remains. Only specially licensed and trained chefs can prepare the dish in Japan, and South Korea. A handful of chefs also prepare blowfish recipes in America, primarily in New York.
Most of the poison of the pufferfish is contained in the ovaries and organs, with the highest poison concentration in the liver. Chefs preparing fugu must be extremely careful when cutting the fish, so as to avoid introducing any part of the poisonous areas of the fish into the meal. Yet some chefs do leave a very small amount of the poison in the prepared fugu, which can cause a tingling of the mouth and lips.
Blowfish meals are revered in Japan, and are very expensive. A full meal can easily cost about $200 US Dollars (USD) or more, while a dish of fugu sushi or sashimi might cost about $20-60 USD. Cost may be even higher in the US since the fish is prepared in Japan and then sent by air to the US. Some people who have tried pufferfish suggest it’s not worth the price. They complain the fish has a bland taste. Others, especially in Japan consider it an extraordinary delicacy and celebrate its flavor and the inherent dangers of eating it.
It should be noted that few cases of fugu poisoning occur when licensed chefs prepare the fish, though the rare case does occur. Yet Japan clearly perceived the danger, especially when homeless people sought meals in the garbage cans of restaurants and died from accidental poisoning. This led to regulations regarding safe disposal of all unusable parts of the fish.
Also, the Japanese do not allow their Emperor to eat any type of fugu, and there have been times in Japanese history when consumption of the fish in any form was forbidden, most notably during the Tokugawa Shogunate which lasted from the early 17th century through the mid 19th century. The European Union bans the sale of any type of pufferfish.
There are varied accounts of the number of deaths attributed to fugu poisoning each year. Often these deaths, which range from possibly 10 to over 150 people a year, depending upon what account you read, are caused when unlicensed or amateur chefs try to prepare this dish themselves. It’s emphatically not a fish that should be prepared by someone who hasn’t been trained extensively.
Strange accounts exist of the pufferfish causing people to appear as dead, and of people who wake right before they’re about to be buried or cremated. Some people have suggested the poison has been used in Voodoo to create the so-called zombies: people who seem dead and then appear to rise from the dead. These claims are unproven.
Scientists have developed a nonpoisonous variant of pufferfish, which has been accomplished by feeding the fish a special diet. It’s believed that diet and the introduction of several forms of bacteria may cause the poison. By raising fish in a controlled environment, a species of the pufferfish seems completely free of toxicity. Some people do wonder whether removing the poison makes the food less attractive, since some people get a certain thrill out of eating a fish that could potentially cause death, and contend that ingestion of minute amounts of the poison is actually part of the attraction to pufferfish meals.
Apparently, there are only 17 restaurants in the United States that are licensed to sell fugu, 12 of which are located in New York. There are a few establishments in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C that serve the fish. The regulations are extremely strict and any chef that touches the meat in the United States is required to undergo the same intensive training as fugu chefs in Japan. There have also been stories of unlicensed restaurants in the United States stocking the meat for brief periods of time, though these claims are unconfirmed.