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Which Popular Japanese Delicacy Can Be Deadly If Prepared Incorrectly?

Margaret Lipman
Updated May 16, 2024
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Pufferfish are amazing creatures. Covered in spines and capable of filling their stomachs with water for protection from predators, most pufferfish species have organs laced with a powerful neurotoxin known as tetrodotoxin (TTX) that can cause food poisoning, paralysis, and even death if consumed.

But pufferfish are also quite tasty, so naturally, they’re a delicacy in Japan (and Korea, and increasingly, China). Known as fugu, pufferfish can be served in a variety of ways, such as thinly sliced sashimi or in a broth. It can be added to rice porridge, seared on the outside, breaded and deep-fried, or grilled over charcoal. It’s a low-fat, high-protein fish with a dense, meaty consistency.

Eating fugu in a restaurant in Japan is very safe. It remains an upmarket menu item, though it is becoming more accessible. The serious incidents that occur from eating fugu are nearly always the result of people attempting to (illegally) prepare it at home. After all, TTX is thought to be over 1,000 times more toxic to humans than cyanide. Ingesting the toxin can lead to numbness in the tongue and lips that eventually spreads to the rest of the body, lightheadedness, and vomiting. In serious cases, heart rate increases, blood pressure drops, and muscles, including the diaphragm responsible for breathing, become paralyzed. There is no known antidote, though treatment to artificially support breathing until the toxin is metabolized is often successful.

Fancy some fugu?

  • If fugu sashimi isn’t exciting enough for you, there are other ways to enjoy it. Fugu shirako is a particular delicacy that features pufferfish milt (sperm-containing genitalia). Pufferfish can even be enjoyed as a warming alcoholic beverage called hirezake. A burnt fugu fin is steeped for several minutes in a cup of hot sake, giving the drink a smoky, fishy flavor.

  • Around 95% of fugu in Japan is farm-raised, with the remaining 5% being wild-caught, and far more expensive.

  • Due to the dangers of preparing it incorrectly, fugu consumption was banned during the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1868). Bans continued in certain places into the 20th century, and the preparation of fugu remains tightly controlled. Only licensed chefs can prepare it, after completing a rigorous apprenticeship and exam.

  • Tetrodotoxin is highly concentrated in a pufferfish’s liver but is also found in the ovaries, eyes, and skin. Just touching those organs won’t result in illness, as the poison has to be ingested. Interestingly, the fish themselves do not produce the toxin; rather, it is made by marine bacteria that they ingest from food sources.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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