The challenge of eating puffer fish

Would you dare dine with death?

25 JULY 2016,
A puffer fish
A puffer fish

Many people love the adrenaline rush from skydiving or bungy jumping. But there are also daredevils who are even more thrilled in challenging death itself. Death from eating a puffer fish!

Although it can actually be eaten with proper preparation, a puffer fish is known to be the world’s most poisonous fish. Its toxicity reaches up to 1,200 times more than a cyanide.

What is a puffer fish?

A puffer fish is one of the many species belonging to the Tetraodontidae family of marine and estuary fish. It’s also called blowfish or fugu in Japanese, among various other names. In all fairness, a puffer fish can actually be eaten safely despite being known as a deadly fish. But you can do this only if (with emphasis on the IF) you know how to prepare it properly. You just have to identify the lethal organs and know how to remove them.

The liver, skin, eyes, kidney, intestine, and ovary of a puffer fish contain tetrodotoxin (TTX), a substance known as one of the most toxic poisons found in nature. It is far more lethal than a cyanide. Each puffer fish has different concentration levels of TTX. But according to scientists, even a little dose of 1 - 2 milligrams of purified toxin can be fatal. And a gram of fugu is enough to kill 500 people. Unfortunately - and this is the sad part - there is no known antidote to it yet!

There has already been a number of recorded puffer fish poisoning in different countries. Among the latest incidents happened on June 21, 2016, in the Philippines. Two siblings died after having eaten a dish of puffer fish for dinner, which was prepared by their father. While another child is still recuperating at a local hospital. Japan, too, has recorded some similar incidents in the past.

Depending on the amount of poison ingested, victims of fugu poisoning generally die within 6 to 24 hours after eating a dish. They initially experience paralysis even while they are still conscious. And even if their brain were still able to function, their limbs have already become numb and they could no longer speak. This eventually makes their breathing difficult. Tetrodotoxin shuts down a victim’s central nervous system. But it does not cross over the blood and brain barrier. That’s why whoever is poisoned would remain conscious even his muscles become paralyzed and his speech incoherent. The toxin also causes asphyxia and eventual death.

But some people are just too stubborn. They would insist that the tastier parts are the organs that contain tetrodotoxin. The foolhardy may even order for the most lethal part of the fugu. Kabuki actor, Mitsugoro Bando VIII just did it in January 1975. He asked a Kyoto restaurant to give him four servings of fugu kimo, or the fish liver. He said he liked this part the most because it’s the tastiest. Bando also said that he loves the intense tingling sensation that the fugu liver produces on his cheeks and lips. And as expected, the actor experienced paralysis on his arms and legs right after consuming his fugu kimo. He died after 8 hours since then.

Now with this kind of stance (read: stubbornness), could we safely say that eating fugu is a test of man’s bravery? Anyway, for whatever reason they might have, it’s their choice. As many advocates say, the thrill of eating something that might kill you is addictive.

A delicacy in Japan

Fugu is a popular dish in Japan, particularly among the wealthy. In fact, there are already around 3,800 restaurants that serve fugu in the country. Although these establishments are allowed to operate, the Japanese government imposes strict regulations on them. All chefs have to undergo at least three years of training on fugu preparation. And at the end of their training, they have to take a test in which they are required to prepare a fugu dish and eat it, too. If the candidate does not die after eating, he qualifies for the chef position. He is given a special license to prepare fugu dishes in restaurants.

Eating fugu is referred to as the “Russian roulette” in the fine dining world. Advocates claim that the tingling sensation that the dish produces on their lips, tongue, and cheeks excite them. But Japanese aficionados do it intentionally because they say it’s a tradition or a delicacy in Japan. Fugu is most often prepared in some types of sushi, sashimi, or chirinabe. In sashimi, the slivers are usually cut very thin that the pieces almost come out transparent. Those who have tasted a fugu sashimi have varying opinions. Some say it tastes like chicken. While others claim the dish has a delicate, gelatinous texture.

Anyway, whatever it tastes like, there is no denying that eating fugu is quite expensive. A dish costs around ¥2,000 to ¥5,000 (approximately US$20 - 50). And if you order a full-course of fugu meal, expect to shell out around ¥10,000 - ¥20,000 (approximately US$100 - 200). Isn’t this tantamount to saying you’re buying your own death? Humans, indeed, can be so stubborn. We are inclined to do the things that are prohibited if only to satisfy our curiosity.

Nevertheless, if this article has aroused your curiosity for puffer fish, make sure to check the chef’s certificate before ordering a fugu meal. Aside from Japan, you can order a fugu meal in some places in the US and South Korea.