Stupid Question ™
July 19, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: Is fugu, the poisonous pufferfish they eat in Japan, legal in the US? Where can I get some?
—The Spirit of Tom Forcade
A: Don’t get some. I strongly advise you never to eat pufferfish of any kind.
“Pufferfish” and “fugu” are the English and Japanese common names for a genera of fish that can inflate their bodies up to four times their normal size as a defensive measure.
All pufferfish are poisonous, though the amount of poison varies between species and individuals, and also seasonally. (They’re more toxic in the summer mating season.)
The poison is tetrodotoxin (TTX), a neurotoxin 10,000 times stronger than cyanide. A milligram can kill an adult human, and there’s no antidote. It causes total paralysis and respiratory failure, though the victim remains conscious the whole time. About 50 percent of victims survive.
And yet, the Japanese consider pufferfish a delicacy, especially the highly poisonous torafugu (tiger pufferfish). It has a delicate flavor, and pufferfish sperm is supposedly an aphrodisiac.
But mostly, fugu is about macho death-defiance and getting a buzz. (TTX blocks nerve transmissions 160,000 times better than cocaine, causing euphoria.)
The TTX lies mostly in the liver, gonads and viscera, sometimes in the skin. These must be carefully removed to avoid poisoning. In the old days, chefs would sometimes leave a dash of poison behind so the fugu would make your mouth warm and tingly, and give that euphoria. Thus, 176 fugu eaters died in 1958 alone.
The turning point was 1975, when fugu killed a famed Kabuki actor. Now fugu chefs are strictly trained and licensed, and only about five people a year die in Japan—reportedly, all people who try to cook their own.
Japan’s best fugu is in the port city of Shimonoseki. But it’s safe now; a diner hasn’t died there in 50 years, and you probably won’t get a buzz or a tingle. You could try to buy a fresh torafugu at the city’s Haedomari Fish Market.
In the US, foreign fugu is banned, with one big exception. New York City’s Restaurant Nippon got the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve torafugu imports in 1989. It can be delivered only to New York, where FDA inspectors test it for TTX. It can then be sold only to New York City restaurants that are in a buyers’ group organized by Restaurant Nippon.
As Restaurant Nippon puts it, this fugu is probably “safer than eating a hot dog.” It’s fish. No tingle. No buzz. No real death-defying.
Many restaurants outside New York serve fugu, such as San Francisco’s dramatically named Blowfish Sushi To Die For. But this is a shell game. Their fugu is North Atlantic pufferfish, one of the least poisonous known. They need an OK from the local health department to serve it, but East Coast seafood shacks sell the same fish as “sea squab.”
For the old-school fugu experience, try Hawaii. Pufferfish-eating is banned there, but rumor has it there’s a black market in deadly Pacific fugu, possibly including torafugu.