Japan’s Deadly Cuisine: Eating Fugu or Pufferfish

When I think back to traveling Japan for the first time, the food is one of the things that most stands out in my mind. I was excited to try fresh sushi and sashimi, ramen, soba, and udon noodles, yakitori and deep-fried meat on a stick.

What wasn’t on my radar was fugu, or pufferfish, one of the deadliest foods in the world.

It wasn’t until probably my 5th or so trip to Japan that my husband decided he wanted to try fugu.

“You what?”

We were traveling in the southern part of Japan that trip and had come back up to Osaka to finish off his birthday week.

“Yeah, let’s try fugu in Osaka.”

Mind you, this is the man who barely learned how to eat sushi a few years ago and now wants to advance to “Culinary Russian Roulette”!

My initial instinct was panic and fear and figuring this must be his version of a mid-life crisis. Some men want to buy new a sports car, mine wants to eat poisonous fish.

Zuboraya

I spent hours, literally hours, researching fugu stats, reputable restaurants, the risk factors, etc. If I was going to take this big of a risk, I wanted to know what I was getting myself into.

Surprisingly, after Googling everything I could get my hands on, the risks were not as bad as I thought. Here are some helpful facts and tips if you plan to try fugu on your trip in Japan.

Small Fugu Sashimi

For those unfamiliar with fugu, the toxicity of the fish comes from tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin that is located in the fish’s organs, especially its ovaries, liver, and even in its skin. One wrong cut and the entire fish is contaminated. The poison causes paralysis and people eventually die from asphyxiation.

Research is actually underway in Japan on learning to farm fugu that are non-poisonous. By restricting the fish’s diet and its environment, they believe they can eliminate the tetrodotoxin. Their research has shown the fish’s diet and digestive process are the reason behind the production of this neurotoxin, but skeptics think they are using different types of fish.

Fugu Death Toll Relatively Low

Statistics show that most of the fugu related deaths come from people eating at unlicensed establishments and fishermen in some countries who catch and attempt to clean it themselves.

On average, less than 70 people are hospitalized each year for fugu poisoning, with a fatality rate less than 10%. While there is no antidote, medical advances have come a long way in helping decrease the fatality rate from accidental fugu poisoning.

Fugu Chefs Undergo Rigorous Training

It might make you feel slightly better to learn that obtaining a license to sell fugu is no small feat. Chefs undergo multi-year apprenticeships learning the proper way to cut and prepare fugu. If you think that is tough, imagine the licensing examination – with a pass rate less than 40%! The licensing process involved a written exam, fish identification test, and the best part – a practical test where applicants have to prepare and consume the fugu.

Stick to Licensed and Reputable Fugu Restaurants

While this may seem like common sense, some people do not take the time to find what restaurants specialize in fugu, or more importantly are licensed to serve fugu.

We were in a small sushi bar during this trip and saw what appeared to be a pufferfish in the cold case, ready to be cut up. Expressing curiosity, we asked the chef if that was fugu. He quickly said “no, no” and proceeded to go take the fish in the back. My guess is he was obviously not licensed to serve it and didn’t want anyone finding out he had it.

One popular chain specializing in fugu is Zuboraya, which has two locations in Osaka. The most notable is the one in Dotonbori, Osaka’s trendy night area. This is where we tried pufferfish and obviously we survived!

Zuboraya Dotonbori

How Fugu is Prepared

Many of the restaurants like Zuboraya specialize in fugu menus. You can choose how many course, with each course highlighting a different part of the fish or a new cooking method. Fugu is definitely not inexpensive and a full tasting menu can easily exceed $100 US.

A better option if you want to just sample fugu is to try a sashimi platter, one of the signature ways fugu is prepared. Often called fugu sashi or tessa, the fugu is sliced so thinly, it’s literally transparent. Most times it is arranged in a chrysanthemum pattern and placed on an intricately designed plate so the pattern shows through.

Fugu Courses in Restaurant Display Case

If you are sake drinker, don’t miss out on the hirazake. It’s a baked fugu fin served in hot sake. The taste is harsh, and you can’t eat the fin, but it’s an experience.

Hirazake

Eating Fugu Outside of Japan

You can try fugu in the United States, but check carefully as there are only a handful of restaurants nationwide that are licensed to serve it. Chefs are trained under the same rigorous conditions as Japanese chefs, yet they don’t even really handle the fish per se. The fish is rid of all its toxins in Japan then freeze-flown to the US under careful watch.

38 Comments

  1. RobynJacqueline on September 15, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Reading this, the only thing I could think of was that episode of the Simpson’s where Homer Simpson is served Fugu and then thinks he’s going to die.

    • Michael on September 18, 2011 at 3:20 pm

      Haha. Awesome episode.

  2. RobynJacqueline on September 15, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Reading this, the only thing I could think of was that episode of the Simpson’s where Homer Simpson is served Fugu and then thinks he’s going to die.

    • Michael on September 18, 2011 at 4:20 pm

      Haha. Awesome episode.

  3. Iammaria on September 15, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    helpful post  for travelers…thanks for sharing…guess will not eat this food..lol..

  4. Iammaria on September 15, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    helpful post  for travelers…thanks for sharing…guess will not eat this food..lol..

  5. Erdfs on September 15, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    “Tessa is a simple yet delicious fravour” haha

    • Erin De Santiago on September 21, 2011 at 5:56 am

      Yeah, isn’t that sign funny? Loved that. 

  6. Erdfs on September 15, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    “Tessa is a simple yet delicious fravour” haha

    • Erin De Santiago on September 21, 2011 at 6:56 am

      Yeah, isn’t that sign funny? Loved that. 

  7. Kai Roer on September 16, 2011 at 1:14 am

    with a pass rate less than 40%! The licensing process involved a written exam, fish identification test, and the best part – a practical test where applicants have to prepare and consume the fugu.

    Wonder how many of those who don’t pass, don’t survive their own tasting 😀 

    • Michael on September 18, 2011 at 3:19 pm

      I bet they get paid pretty well if they do survive.

  8. Kai Roer on September 16, 2011 at 2:14 am

    with a pass rate less than 40%! The licensing process involved a written exam, fish identification test, and the best part – a practical test where applicants have to prepare and consume the fugu.

    Wonder how many of those who don’t pass, don’t survive their own tasting 😀 

    • Michael on September 18, 2011 at 4:19 pm

      I bet they get paid pretty well if they do survive.

  9. Win on September 16, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Man now I want to try it!

  10. Win on September 16, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    Man now I want to try it!

  11. Buckeye on September 16, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    How did is taste?  Can you compare it to other sushi?  Is it worth the risk for the flavor or is it more of a stunt?

    • Erin De Santiago on September 21, 2011 at 5:55 am

      Personally, I thought it was very bland. People say to always judge for yourself and some claim you feel a tingling or sense of euphoria from the toxins that were once there.  I didn’t get that sensation.  The hirazake is quite strong flavored…sort of like a burnt taste. 

  12. Buckeye on September 16, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    How did is taste?  Can you compare it to other sushi?  Is it worth the risk for the flavor or is it more of a stunt?

    • Erin De Santiago on September 21, 2011 at 6:55 am

      Personally, I thought it was very bland. People say to always judge for yourself and some claim you feel a tingling or sense of euphoria from the toxins that were once there.  I didn’t get that sensation.  The hirazake is quite strong flavored…sort of like a burnt taste. 

  13. Ron | Active Planet Travels on September 17, 2011 at 8:01 am

    How interesting!  I would like to give it a shot but at $100 dollars a plate that’s a bit steep for a budget backpacker!

    • Michael on September 18, 2011 at 3:19 pm

      Hah yeah not exactly budget friendly but by the sounds of it, it’s an experience. I’d give it a try.

    • Erin De Santiago on September 21, 2011 at 5:54 am

      The $100 a plate is for the set menu with like 5 or 6 courses…the a la carte options are much more reasonably priced…I think our sashimi platter was around $10 US or so.  I will pay a lot for food but I’m not paying $100 for multiple courses of fish that may kill me! LOL 

  14. Ron | Active Planet Travels on September 17, 2011 at 9:01 am

    How interesting!  I would like to give it a shot but at $100 dollars a plate that’s a bit steep for a budget backpacker!

    • Michael on September 18, 2011 at 4:19 pm

      Hah yeah not exactly budget friendly but by the sounds of it, it’s an experience. I’d give it a try.

    • Erin De Santiago on September 21, 2011 at 6:54 am

      The $100 a plate is for the set menu with like 5 or 6 courses…the a la carte options are much more reasonably priced…I think our sashimi platter was around $10 US or so.  I will pay a lot for food but I’m not paying $100 for multiple courses of fish that may kill me! LOL 

  15. Nomadic Samuel on September 18, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Wow, that’s fascinating.  I think I recall hearing about this before but this article really explains things well.  The tip on making sure you at an established/reputable place really makes a lot of sense in this instance!  HA

  16. Nomadic Samuel on September 18, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    Wow, that’s fascinating.  I think I recall hearing about this before but this article really explains things well.  The tip on making sure you at an established/reputable place really makes a lot of sense in this instance!  HA

  17. Our Oyster on December 30, 2011 at 3:19 am

    Wow! It is really interesting learning about how they have to pass those exams…. i wonder if the 60% who fail are the ones who accidentally poison themselves!

  18. Our Oyster on December 30, 2011 at 4:19 am

    Wow! It is really interesting learning about how they have to pass those exams…. i wonder if the 60% who fail are the ones who accidentally poison themselves!

  19. Leeandjane861 on June 5, 2012 at 2:19 am

    I’ve been to Japan on business many times and never hand any desire to try this stuff. 

    It makes no sense to do so.  The only attraction is the risk.  Unless you are alone in this world, thre’s no logical reason to take that risk.

    • Michael on June 7, 2012 at 12:09 pm

      Considering the low risk of death, I think many people in Japan actually like the taste of Fugu. I haven’t had it yet so I don’t know.

  20. Leeandjane861 on June 5, 2012 at 3:19 am

    I’ve been to Japan on business many times and never hand any desire to try this stuff. 

    It makes no sense to do so.  The only attraction is the risk.  Unless you are alone in this world, thre’s no logical reason to take that risk.

    • Michael on June 7, 2012 at 1:09 pm

      Considering the low risk of death, I think many people in Japan actually like the taste of Fugu. I haven’t had it yet so I don’t know.

  21. Benjamin on March 20, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    Hi Erin!

    This is a really informative and helpful post on fugu, and I am so glad to have chanced upon this!

    I am going to Osaka sometime this year and it is on my bucket list (oh the irony..) to try this potentially fatal dish.

    Would like to ask if it is possible to just order an ala carte serving of the Fugu Sashimi alone, the price of it, and also if you or your husband experienced any of the said symptoms that you mentioned here.

    Thank you!

  22. Masa on April 21, 2014 at 11:29 pm

    You can get some sashimi at local market in Yamaguchi or Fukuoka prefecture.
    The most famous place for fugu is Karato-Ichiba.
    http://www.karatoichiba.com/
    If you want to try fugu, winter will be the best.

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