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Fugu: The Deadliest (and the Most Delicious) Fish in Ancient Japan

Ravi loves writing within the realm of relationships, history, and the bizarre—where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.

It Is a Type of Pufferfish

It is called fugu by the Japanese and it is a type of pufferfish.

It is a cute fish with smooth skin and a very elegant taste. But just like a rose has thorns, delicious fugu dishes bear hazards. The fish is extremely poisonous. And as a matter of fact, that poison is 1,000 more deadly than cyanide, with no antidote available to date.

These fishes accumulate neurotoxins by eating other infested fishes. The toxin is concentrated mostly in the liver, gonads, and skin. The level of toxicity is seasonal, so fugu is traditionally served in Japan only from October to March. As little as one to two milligrams of the toxin can be fatal. The toxin paralyzes the nervous system of victims and kills them within 4-6 hours.

And the dangers of the fish were well evident throughout Japanese History as beautifully written by the classical Haiku poet Yosa Buson of the 16th century who composed a Haiku about heartbreak in which he wants to die by eating fugu.

I cannot see her tonight.

I have to give her up

So, I will eat fugu.

Coming to the present times, The Japanese government only allows highly trained and licensed chefs to serve fugu as even the smallest mistake in its preparation can be fatal. Fugu chefs consider themselves the best in Japan's highly competitive culinary world.

The training lasts at least two years, but the apprentice is not allowed to take the practice test to get a license until he was 20, the age people become legal adults in Japan. A third of examinees fail.

As Miura-san, Japan’s celebrated fugu chef tells us.

“Even a tiny sliver of fugu ovary is enough to kill you. People say it is 200 times more deadly than cyanide.”

Sounds delicious, right? Well, to some people, the thrill lies in eating the fish and surviving which has become a part of the fish's allure. And thanks to this thrill, fugu has become one of the most celebrated and notorious dishes in Japanese cuisine.

The Ancient History of Fugu

Fugu has been traditionally eaten in Japan for over 2,000 years.Fugu delicacies are extensively described in Japan's historical records from 720 was typically eaten in winter in the form of paper-thin, translucent slices of sashimi, arranged in the shape of a chrysanthemum and garnished with daikon onions.

Archaeological excavations from the Jomon culture (10,500 – 300 BC) have unearthed fugu teeth fossils from midden heaps. But having said that,Japanese Emperor is forbidden from even touching fugu. And in the Edo period (1603-1867) the Samurai, Japan’s legendary military nobility, were ordered to extinguish their entire family lines if they ever became poisoned.

The first time, a restriction was imposed on eating fugu was by warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi who banned it during the Sengoku period (1467-1603 AD) as it was resulting in the mass poisoning of his troops.Later the ban was lifted and fugu consumption became public again in the subsequent periods of Japanese history. In the Edo era, everybody knew the wonderfulness of Fugu dishes.

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But the most adventurous way of eating was undoubtedly “Fugu no Nukazuke(raw paper thin-slices of fugu washed down with sake). It was seen as a mark of bravery and most men would never dare to refuse an invitation to a fugu party. In fact, Japan's first prime minister Hirobumu Ito was so much fond of it that he popularized it across the world which contributed to the spread of fugu consumption.

As of today, Government rules have been relaxed with packed and processed fugu fish being made available to cheaper restaurants also. But the thrill of catching a wild fugu fish, cleaning it onsite of all its poison, and surviving to tell its taste is quite an event in itself.

The Thrill of Eating Poison Might Be Over

Yes, the dining of fugu is going to get a lot safer now.

Grubstreet, New York’s fashion and restaurant blog reports that the Japanese company Manbou Corp claims to have created a special farm-cultivated version of the fish, that is entirely non-poisonous.

The company is in the process of lobbying the Japanese government to lift its strict regulations on fugu preparation to allow people to eat pufferfish liver (the tastiest but the most poisonous part of the fish) again.

While this might be good news for all those normal diners who want to taste safely this exotic dish, many in Japan believe that this takes away the mind-blowing experience of eating fugu fish.

As one diner says, “Knowing this might be the last meal you are eating gives a gourmet experience which cannot be fulfilled by the non-poisonous variety. And what is the enjoyment in eating something that has no risk in it?”

At the end of the day, it is all about the thrill of adrenaline, pumping all inside you at its best (or at its worst) when you are eating fugu in its wildest form and some people just can’t seem to get enough of it.

As Deyth Banger rightly says.

“Life without adrenaline is useless and pointless.”

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ravi Rajan

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