Fugu (フグ or 河豚) is a Japanese pufferfish very famous worldwide for being served as a dish in restaurants despite its poisonous properties that require chefs to have a license to cook it. But where did this tradition of eating fugu come from? And how does one learn how to handle such a fish? Let’s find out!
What is fugu?
Let’s start with the basics, fugu is a pufferfish, and like most pufferfish species it is extremely poisonous and can be lethal if eaten as is. Its toxic properties are due to a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin found in its inner organs, with the liver and ovaries being among the most dangerous, as well as the eyes and the skin. Like most other pufferfish, the fugu is know for its ability to inflate itself by swallowing water (hence the name pufferfish in English). When puffed-up, pointed spines can be observed protruding from its skin.
Because of the poison it contains, fugu needs to be prepared a certain way for it to be edible: the toxic parts must be removed without contaminating the non-poisonous ones which need to be cleaned. Up to years of training are required to learn how to handle such a fish and one cannot prepare and serve fugu without the proper qualifications. In order to prevent fugu related intoxications, its handling is extremely restricted and only State licensed professionals are allowed to prepare and serve or sell fugu.
It was discovered that the poison found in fugu is not actually produced by the fugu itself, but is rather due to bacteria found in animals it regularly eats. Therefore, it is possible to artificially produce non-toxic pufferfish, and efforts are underway in some areas to commercialize them.
However, it is not easy due to various problems. The first one being the cost of equipment to maintain the temperature at the same levels as that of the fugu’s natural habitat. Another problem is the added stress to fugu when their tetrodotoxin levels are depleted which leads them to attack other fugu, making it hard to raise them with other fish. On top of that, the toxin that makes them lethal to humans actually protects them from parasites, leading to cases where their survival rate drops due to the absence of tetrodotoxin.
An argument can also be made that if non-poisonous fugu became widespread, the false belief that eating fugu and fugu insides is safe would spread as well, lowering people’s guard when coming across fugu thus increasing incident rates.
History of fugu consumption in Japan
It is believed that fugu has been eaten for centuries up to milleniums thanks to fugu bones that have been found in shell middens dating back to more than 2,300 years back.
Centuries later, heading into the Edo period (1603 – 1868), fugu consumption was banned altogether due to numerous cases of samurai dying of pufferfish induced poisoning. However, this was also a time when fish eating culture flourished and techniques to safely eat fugu were gradually being developped, especially in the western parts of Japan where it was easier to get.
At the start of the Meiji Era, toward the 1880s, the tendency still leaned toward restricting fugu consumption due to succeeding intoxication incidents. A few years later however, officials visiting Shimonoseki in the west of Japan (south of Honshū island) would be captivated by the taste of this fish and restrictions would begin to gradually be lifted throughout the country as expertise in safe fugu preparation would expand, starting with the Yamaguchi prefecture (home to Shimonoseki) in 1898, where fugu culture and consumption was more common than in other parts of Japan.
Other prefectures and municipalities would follow that example during the 20th century, such as the Hyogo prefecture lifting the ban on fugu in 1918 followed by Osaka in 1941 before spreading and reviving the fugu culture in the rest of the country.
Over the following years, starting in Osaka in 1948, were also implemented restrictions stating that one must be licensed to serve or sell fugu so as to avoid tetrodotoxin poisening incidents. This is why nowadays, while it is possible to eat fugu in a licensed restaurant, one is not allowed to prepare and serve fugu without a proper state authorization.
How does one obtain authorization to cook fugu?
Fugu cooking licenses are granted to those who pass a fugu handling examination, usually after having undergone apprenticeship under someone already qualified.
It should be noted that fugu cooking licenses are administered by local goverment (ie: prefectures, municipalities in the case of cities like Osaka or Kyoto), therefore the contents of the exam and the apprenticeship prior can differ from region to region. The course that one must complete can take longer in some places, while the exam can present itself to be more difficult in other areas.
For instance, in what is said the be the strictest place regarding fugu licensing in Japan: Yamaguchi Prefecture, it is necessary to work for at least 3 years under someone qualified before being allowed to take the exam, while in Tōkyō it is possible to take the test after 2 years of apprenticeship.
Let’s take Tōkyō’s exam as an example, it is divided into two parts: a written test and a practical one.
During the written part, the examinees are tested on Tōkyō’s regulations regarding fugu handling and on general knowledge about fugu.
The practical test on the other hand is first composed of a fugu species identification test, and of a second part where the examinees must identify the edible and inedible parts of the fish before removing the poisonous ones, cooking the fugu, peeling the skin and finally making sashimi.
Should the examinees pass the examination, they will then receive their license and will be allowed to serve fugu.
Where does fugu come from?
Most fugu production in Japan comes from Shimonoseki (western Japan, south of Honshū island) due to its high concentration of the fish, where it is harvested during spawning season in spring. Nonetheless, it is also possbile to find fugu in other regions of Japan such as the Tōkyō bay area or even further up North. Should you go fishing in Japanese waters you might just happen to catch fugu. In addition, it is also farmed in cages in the Pacific Ocean.
How is fugu typically eaten?
Restaurants serving fugu can be found in most cities all around Japan where it is considered to be a refined dish. Fugu meat is white and is very often served in sashimi (thin raw fish slices) but can also be enjoyed in nabe (hot pot dish), can be fried, or can even be used to make fugu hirezake (a style of sake drinking where the fin of the fish is deep-fried and placed in hot sake).
It is said that one needs to be initiated to fugu to truly know its subtleties and that one might, at first, find the fish to be bland. However, the specific meat texture, as well as the folklore surrounding the dish is what makes eating it quite an event.
It should also be noted that fugu meat is expensive, with dishes ranging from 50 dollars, to hundreds of dollars in renowned restaurants.
Fugu in the world
It is also interesting to note that Fugu dishes can also be found in South Korea, where it is called bok-eo (복어). It is also imported into the United States where it can sometimes be served under very strict regulation and licensing. Fugu is, however, entirely banned in the European Union.
Have you ever tried fugu? If so, what did you think? And if not, would you want to?