February 26, 2010
Aside from foraging wild mushrooms without a good guide book, or having tea with a former Russian spy, one of the most potentially dangerous meals you can have is fugu, the highly toxic puffer fish that can cause paralysis or death but is considered a delicacy in Japan. There, specialized restaurants employ licensed chefs who have undergone years of training in how to prepare the fish and remove the poison. Still, a few people die every year from fugu poisoning, mostly at the hands of inexperienced cooks.
The 18th-century Pacific explorer Captain James Cook described the effects of what is believed to be mild fugu poisoning in his journals. Also in the 1700s, the Japanese poet Yosa Buson wrote a haiku about heartbreak that is sort of the Asian version of the kids’ song about eating worms:
I cannot see her tonight.
I have to give her up
So I will eat fugu.
It is believed that the fish’s poison comes from the accumulation of the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin in the bacteria and smaller sea life it ingests. The toxin is concentrated mostly in the liver, gonads and skin. The level of toxicity is seasonal, so fugu is traditionally served in Japan only from October to March. As little as one to two milligrams of the toxin can be fatal. The first symptoms of poisoning can begin anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours after ingestion. Numbness begins in the lips and tongue, followed by nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and diarrhea, then spreading paralysis and a complete shutdown of the central nervous system. There is no known antidote, and death—which is the final result in about half of all fugu poisoning cases—usually occurs within four to six hours.
Sounds delicious, right? Well, to some people, that lethal potential, however slight, is part of the fish’s allure.
But now the thrill may be gone. In 2004, researchers at Nagasaki University succeeded in breeding non-toxic puffer fish by separating them from other marine life and feeding them a purified diet. And Optima Foods, in the Ehime prefecture of Japan, has recently begun selling farmed non-poisonous fugu to restaurants. Already an expensive fish, the safer version is even pricier because of the work- and technology-intensive farming process; the fish are raised inland, in fresh water with salt and minerals added.
All this is great for diners, like me, who consider a delicious meal thrilling enough. But it doesn’t look like the certified fugu chefs will be out of a job anytime soon. As one Japanese chef told the Telegraph, “It’s obviously more than a little exciting to go to a restaurant knowing that it might be the last meal that you ever eat. Where is the enjoyment in eating something that has no risk in it?”
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