“Not many people actually die eating fugu,” said one of my friends a few months ago, as we dined in a restaurant in Tsukiji, home to Tokyo’s giant fish market. He dipped a raw piece of the deadly fish into the sauce and popped it into his mouth. “The trouble is,” he went on, “that whenever anybody does die, the media jump on it and blow it out of all proportion.”
He was right, of course. Not many people do die eating one of the most obscene fishes you could imagine. But there is always the chance that it can happen—and that seems be the attraction.
Every year hundreds of thousands of Japanese put their lives on a plate, literally, in a gastronomic form of Russian roulette. They pay a fortune to sit down to a full course fugu meal. Most of them live to talk about the experience the next day, but each year about fifty of them do not. They die still thinking clearly but unable to speak or move and, finally, breathe. Nevertheless, fugu is now more popular than ever, with annual consumption way up to the tens of thousands of tons.
But what exactly is fugu? Well, fugu is the general name for the fish of the Tetraondontidae family, which in English are known as blowfish, puffer, globefish or swellfish. Although fugu can be deadly, they have been eaten for hundreds of years in Japan, except for during the feudal period (1603–1868), when the regime of the Tokugawa shogunate strictly prohibited the consumption of fugu. But as soon as the shogunate was overturned, eating fugu became popular again.
What is it that makes fugu so deadly? The simple answer is that the fugu poison, known as tetrodoxin, is so powerful that a mere one or two milligrams is the estimated lethal dose for an adult. It is, in fact, 1250 times deadlier than cyanide. The poison blocks sodium channels in nerve tissues, ultimately paralysing the muscles, leading to respiratory arrest as the cause of death. And there is no proven antidote. About 60% of puffer poisonings prove fatal. The poison is found in the ovaries, intestines and livers, and if even a touch of these internal organs is left in the fish, the diner can die within minutes; so preparation of the fish must be carefully supervised.
To ensure safety in the consumption of fugu, government regulations state that fugu must be prepared by a licensed fugu chef who has taken intensive courses, served an extensive apprenticeship and passed written exams. But in Japan it is common to break the rules to cement a personal relationship, and no chef would think twice about bending the rules to please a treasured customer, even if it means risking tragedy.
Tragedy struck Mitsugoro Bando VIII, Japan’s leading Kabuki actor, on January 16, 1975 after a meal of fugu in one of the country’s top fugu restaurants. Bando, who had been designated a “living national treasure” by the government, was also a gourmet with a passion for fugu. Dining with three friends who, afraid of being poisoned, declined the livers, Bando rashly ate all four servings of the poison-filled organs, three of which are considered strong enough to kill a man.
Before going to bed on the night of his death, Bando told his wife that he was feeling great, as if he were floating on air because he had eaten fugu for dinner. He died of paralysis and convulsions in the middle of the night.
It was, and still is, prohibited to serve the fugu liver in restaurants, so the restaurant was suspended for ten days. But Bando’s demise did not stop the customers arriving in droves. If anything, it increased the popularity of the restaurant.
Why the Japanese should make a ritual eating deadly poisonous fish is difficult for foreigners to comprehend. For many, the elegant, death-defying event is a status symbol, and some say that consumption of the meat produces a pleasant, warm tingling. Connoisseurs, take the idea a little bit further and try to ingest a little bit of the poison, just enough to cause a warm buzz. And, like Bando, they sometimes overstep the danger mark.
© Charles R. Pringle 2007
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