Don’t Try This At Home

Once again, fugu poisoned do-it-yourselfers. On September 10, a couple in Nagasaki, Japan, made sashimi out of a puffer fish the husband had caught in a nearby bay. An hour after eating it, the wife complained about numbness around her mouth and in her limbs. When he also developed the symptoms, they called the emergency number, and both were hospitalized. The toxin soon paralyzed them, and only rapid intervention in the emergency room saved them from asphyxiation. They remain in critical condition.

Fugu is a traditional delicacy, now eaten in high-end restaurants that specialize in it. Despite its comical look, it can be deadly if handled improperly. Depending on species, certain body parts, especially the viscera, contain tetrodotoxin, a colorless, tasteless, odorless neurotoxin that is 1,000 times more toxic than potassium cyanide. The lethal dosage is only 1-2 mg (Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare).

If untreated, people die within four to six hours. There is no antidote, but if you make it to the hospital and get hooked up to a respirator in time, your chances of survival are pretty good.

The edible parts are limited to muscles, skin, or milt, depending on the species. Japan’s Food Sanitation Law specifies the safe parts of each of the 22 species it recognizes as edible—of the hundreds that occur in the seas around Japan. But many of the completely toxic species look very similar to the edible ones. Hence, the law stipulates that only licensed specialists may sell or prepare fugu. However, the actual licenses and ordinances that regulate its handling are issued by local governments.

Fugu is an old passion whose risks have been known for a long time. There were even efforts to regulate its consumption after an incident that decimated a group of samurai. In 1592, Toyotomi Hideyoshi summoned samurai from all over Japan to the coast in preparation for his invasion of Korea. The samurai, unlike locals, didn’t know about the dangers of fugu. They delighted in its textures and flavors and even ate the viscera. They died at a very inconvenient time, just before the invasion. Hence, Hideyoshi ordered his surviving vassals not to eat fugu. The ban morphed into a samurai tradition that was carried into the Edo period, though commoners kept eating it. And so apparently did samurai, albeit with a sense of guilt—based on the logic that they should preserve their life until they needed to die for their lord, rather than squandering it through culinary pleasures.

These days, despite ongoing warnings by the national government and local health offices, people continue to catch this deadly fish and prepare it at home without proper training. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, fugu poisoned 451 people from 2001 to 2009, but killed only 23—thanks to immediate hospital treatment. In almost all cases, unlicensed do-it-yourselfers had prepared the fugu.

Curiously, it has been whispered among fugu lovers that the liver is an utmost, if forbidden and extremely dangerous, delicacy. Old texts already described it as such. At the apex of pleasure, the flavors and textures combine with a tingling of your lips and with the thrilling thought that this might be the last bite you’ll ever eat.

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