Fugu, or better known as poisonous puffer fish to Westerners, has been the butt of every Asia-centric food joke I have ever heard. As an ‘adventuresome type’, I knew that if I was ever presented with the opportunity to eat fugu, I would. I have eaten a number of things that would make the sensitive, meatloaf-eating homebodies in my country squirm- including a vast amount of raw meats, fermented vegetables, and other, less identifiable and often smelly (but not necessarily in a bad way) things. I didn’t, I admit, research fugu much before a trip to Japan earlier this year, finding myself too annoyed by the endless debates on culinary websites. I probably should have.
Fugu comes in many species but only the Torafugu (lit. Tiger Puffer fish) is the most sought-after. Fugu have tetrodotoxin in their bodies- a deadly neurotoxin that can paralyze you before killing you. The toxin is not affected by cooking and it is present in trace amounts throughout the entire fish. Some individual fish also have higher concentrations of poison than others and the fatality rate for fugu consumption is almost 7% (though this factors in the deaths caused by unskilled, unlicensed parties cutting up and eating the fish themselves, which accounts for the majority of this number).
Now that we’ve gotten the scary stuff out of the way, consider this: you have a higher chance of meeting your maker on your drive to the gas station or grocery store or eating fast food laden with E. coli. Japanese chefs must go through a three year certification process that culminates with them preparing and eating torafugu themselves. Only about 40% of applicants earn their certifications and fugu are not available for sale to the general public. Most fugu related deaths are the result of amateurs catching and cutting fugu themselves, or eating the ultra-poisonous liver as a delicacy (the liver is illegal to serve in Japan).
Considering these points, I decided to try fugu at Genpin Fugu in the Gion District of Kyoto. While fugu comes in many preparations, I only tried two- fugu sashi (raw, thin sliced) and fugu karaage (fried). I have to admit that while the fugu was lovingly and beautifully presented in a chrysanthemum design and the karaage was perfectly golden brown and served with a lemon wedge (very western!), the actual taste of the fish was less than impressive. The sashi was chewy and the flavor rather bland, to be blunt, and for the average cost of fugu, I was not moved by the taste. The karaage was tastier but its similarity to other lean, white fish made it rather unremarkable. All in all it was a decent meal, but nothing amazing or addicting or even all that terrifying. The terrifying part took about fifteen minutes.
As my husband and I were walking back to our hotel, he started to get the chills- which is unheard of as this man is physically incapable of getting cold as far as I can tell. I was starting to get worried but didn’t say anything. By the time we made it back he was actually shivering and his skin was searing hot to the touch. I was starting to really worry at this point but I fought it back. He said he wasn’t worried because I didn’t have anything weird happening to me and that since I was smaller than him, fugu related symptoms should manifest themselves faster. Well, twenty minutes later I had a stomach ache and my husband was still shivering in the bed next to me.
And then I started to get morbid. As I said, I didn’t do much research before I dove into this and I told myself- as we were both shivering and sweating and cursing in agony- that looking up anything would likely lead me to terrified speculation from the culinary community and promptly shot the idea down. I knew that if we had ingested a lethal amount of tetrodotoxin we were beyond medical help, I also knew that if we were going to die, we wouldn’t be waiting long.
It’s strange for me to think about my possibly-limited mortality when I’ve struggled with near-crippling anxiety and have battled depression my entire life. I chuckle at the fact that I was contemplating my own death with a very cavalier cynicism when a late payment notice from a doctor’s office had sent me into a full blown panic not a month earlier. I won’t lie. I didn’t lay on the bed in Kyoto and contemplate my life’s meaning. I didn’t contact my family. I didn’t cry and I wasn’t scared. I just lay there- wracked with intense pain- and kept thinking “well then” like we had showed up to a coffee shop just as it was closing. When two hours passed in this manner, I started to think we were in the clear. I had heard that most people who die of fugu poisoning are dead within the first forty minutes and as time passed I became more certain that our bodies were reacting aversely to trace amounts of the toxin and frantically trying to figure out why the hell we put poison in our systems. More time passed and we eventually fell asleep and when we woke up in the morning- still convulsing in agony but definitely not paralyzed- we knew we’d survived the vindictive little torafugu.
When I finally pulled myself out of bed in the morning, I decided to endure the annoyance and did some research. Apparently, getting sick is fairly common for people who eat it for the first time. And so, we suffered for our recklessness… four or five days of intense stomach aches and general queasiness. Do I regret eating it? Nope. But I will admit that if I had known I was going to get sick, if I had known the chances of stomach upset were so much higher than death, I probably wouldn’t have eaten it. Which says something about my idiocy- Death? I’ll risk it. Oh, wait. Sick, you say? Forget it; I’ll just eat this delicious beef bowl again. All in all, I wouldn’t advise fugu as a ‘must do’ in Japan. It has a pretty good shot at making you sick, a small but real chance of killing you, and is not going to be your gastronomical high point if you eat at all in Japan. They have other culinary delights that deserve your attention and that aren’t very likely to kill you or debilitate your stomach. If, however, you are one of those people who (like me) seem to be incapable of resisting a challenge or a rare opportunity to prove your daring and general recklessness, this thrill will at least make a good story.
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