The History of Fugu fish

The culinary preparation of fugu dates back more than 4000 years to prehistoric times. For those who wonder why these early chefs persevered in the face of death, Japanese history tells us that the Japanese of that distant era had no choice, as food was hard to get: preparing fugu fish was a necessity due to hunger. Later, it became the luxury dish we know today.

Fugu is a pufferfish and, like most pufferfish species, it is extremely toxic and can be deadly if prepared as it is. Its toxic properties are due to a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin, which is found in the internal organs, with the liver and ovaries being among the most dangerous, as well as the eyes and skin. The poison is not produced by the fish itself, but accumulates through the consumption of micro-organisms from the sea. Like most other pufferfish, the fugu is known for its ability to inflate itself by swallowing water (hence the name pufferfish in English).

Despite its lethal potential, fugu has been present in Japan for many years. As it was initially unknown how to properly prepare the fish, there have been many deaths from fugu consumption. For this reason, the preparation of fugu was banned between 1570 and 1870. Today, fugu is available in restaurants and supermarkets throughout Japan, but it must be prepared by a licensed chef and is forbidden to prepare at home. The dish is considered a delicacy whose preparation does not allow for mistakes, as its poisonous nature can make it fatal. No antidote has yet been discovered.

Fugu has a rich flavour and a structured texture that is quite unique, the flesh is pure white in colour and is also used by Japanese fugu chefs with great experience to make sculptures or works of art. The meat is subtle in flavour, high in protein, low in fat and suitable for fine dishes. It is an expensive delicacy in Japan and in restaurants, the price depending on the restaurant and the type of fugu fish. The most expensive fish is, of course, the one with the most poison, the tora fugu, which is also said to be the tastiest. However, any part of the fish that is not poisonous is used in the preparation, including the fins, which are used as an accompaniment to the drinks. Fishermen sell it alive, as it swims in aquariums in restaurants until the guest chooses it for lunch or dinner.

To prepare fugu, the chef places the fish on a metal tray where he first removes the head and skin, then starts cutting the intestines, which are the most toxic part, as the ovaries, liver and intestines, which are deadly to humans, must be removed. Care must be taken not to contaminate the clean part with the poisonous part. The Japanese say that the poison of the fugu fish is more deadly than cyanide or any known poison. According to the government, about 20 people die every year in Japan from eating fugu. Most of the victims are fishermen trying to hastily prepare their catch at home. Deaths from fugu fish prepared by certified chefs are rare. Tetrodotoxin poisoning is very rapid, first numbness around the mouth, then paralysis, finally death by respiratory failure, all occurring with the individual conscious until the end, as it affects the nervous system. After poisoning, medical help is of no use as there is no antidote.

The dish is particularly appealing as it is a seasonal dish, prepared from October to March, with a peak season from December to February, when the fish has more fat to survive the cold weather. Japanese restaurants, however, attach special value to it. In spring, from April to June, pufferfish is actually considered more toxic due to its reproductive cycle, so spring is not the season for preparing fugu dishes.