Fugu [foo-goo] is a pufferfish or porcupinefish dish originating in Japan. Fugu can be lethally poisonous to humans due to its tetrodotoxin, meaning it must be carefully prepared to remove toxic parts and to avoid contaminating the meat.

The restaurant preparation of fugu is strictly controlled by law in Japan and several other countries, and only chefs who have qualified after three or more years of rigorous training are allowed to prepare the fish. Domestic preparation occasionally leads to accidental death.

Though some consider the liver to be the tastiest part, it is also the most poisonous, and serving this organ in restaurants was banned in Japan in 1984. etrodotoxin paralyzes muscles while the victim stays fully conscious; the poisoned victim is unable to breathe, and eventually dies from asphyxiation. There is no known antidote for fugu poison. The standard treatment is to support the respiratory and circulatory systems until the poison is metabolized and excreted by the victim’s body.[9]

Researchers have determined that a fugu’s tetrodotoxin comes from eating other animals infested with tetrodotoxin-laden bacteria, to which the fish develops insensitivity over time. As such, efforts have been made in research and aquaculture to allow farmers to produce safe fugu. Farmers now produce poison-free fugu by keeping the fish away from the bacteria; Usuki, a town in Ōita Prefecture, has become known for selling non-poisonous fugu.

The inhabitants of Japan have eaten fugu for centuries. Fugu bones have been found in several shell middens, called kaizuka, from the Jōmon period that date back more than 2,300 years. The Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1868) prohibited the consumption of fugu in Edo and its area of influence. It became common again as the power of the Shōgunate weakened. In western regions of Japan, where the government’s influence was weaker and fugu was easier to get, various cooking methods were developed to safely eat them. During the Meiji Era (1867–1912), fugu was again banned in many areas. According to one fugu chef in Tokyo, the Emperor of Japan has never eaten fugu due to an unspecified ‘centuries old ban.’ Emperor Hirohito (1926–1989) was anecdotally said to have avoided eating fugu.

Strict fishing regulations are now in place to protect fugu populations from depletion. Most fugu is now harvested in the spring during the spawning season and then farmed in floating cages in the Pacific Ocean. The largest wholesale fugu market in Japan is in Shimonoseki. Fugu prices rise in autumn and peak in winter, the best season, because they fatten to survive the cold. Live fish arrive at a restaurant, surviving in a large tank, usually prominently displayed. Prepared fugu is also often available in grocery stores, which must display official license documents. Whole fish may not be sold to the general public.

In the case of Torafugu, the most common fugu, the cost is between ¥1000 and ¥5000 (about $10 to $50) per kg, depending on the season. The expense encourages chefs to slice the fish very carefully to obtain the largest possible amount of meat. A special knife, called fugu hiki, is usually stored separately from other knives.

Between 1996 and 2006, there were 20 to 44 incidents of fugu poisoning per year in Japan, with an average fatality rate of 6.8%. Of the 23 incidents reported in Tokyo from 1993 through 2006, only one took place in a restaurant; all others involved people catching and eating the fish. Poisonings through amateur preparation can result from confusion between types of puffer, as well as improper methods, and some may represent deliberate suicide attempts. Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician who resided in Japan in the 1690s, reported that an unusually toxic variety of puffer was sometimes sought out by individuals who wished to take their own lives.

Japanese restaurateur Nobuyoshi Kuraoka waged a five-year battle with the Food and Drug Administration to allow exclusive import of the Japanese Puffer Tiger fish to his restaurant in Manhattan, with the license granted in 1989. By 2003 only seventeen restaurants in the United States were licensed to serve fugu; fourteen in New York State, twelve of which are based within New York City.

In the Kansai region, the slang word ‘teppō,’ meaning ‘rifle’ or ‘gun,’ is used for the fish. This is a play of words on the verb ‘ataru,’ which can mean to be poisoned or shot. In Shimonoseki region, the ancient pronunciation ‘fuku’ is more common instead of the modern fugu. The former is also a homonym for good fortune whereas the latter is one for disabled.

A rakugo, or humorous short story, tells of three men who prepared a fugu stew but were unsure whether it was safe to eat. To test the stew, they gave some to a beggar. When it did not seem to do him any harm, they ate the stew. Later, they met the beggar again and were delighted to see that he was still in good health. After that encounter, the beggar, who had hidden the stew instead of eating it, knew that it was safe and he could eat it. The three men had been fooled by the wise beggar.

Lanterns can be made from the bodies of preserved fugu. These are occasionally seen outside of fugu restaurants, as children’s toys, as folk art, or as souvenirs. Fugu skin is also made into everyday objects like wallets or waterproof boxes.

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