The Appealing and Potentially Lethal Delicacy That Is Fugu

HERE IS A PLATE of fish cut so thin you can half see through it, the pale panels arrayed in rings that ripple outward, like the small, concentrically packed florets of a chrysanthemum. To one diner, this is a promise of pleasure; to another, a teetering on the abyss. Westerners have never quite understood the reverence in Japan for fugu, alternately known in English as puffer fish, globefish or blowfish, of the family Tetraodontidae. A sluggish swimmer, fugu has stunted fins and often flat-lying spikes instead of scales, and when confronted by predators it compensates for its lack of speed by swallowing enough water to swell up until its spikes stand on end, so it looks like an angry armored balloon. Among those who think of fugu as merely a distant delicacy, knowledge rarely goes beyond the fish’s infamous trait: In the most delicious species, the innards are suffused with the neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin (TTX). In high enough doses, this can shut down a diner’s nerve impulses and cause, within hours, nausea, paralysis and the stalling of the heart, which only knows to beat because our body’s electrical system tells it to.

Just two or three milligrams of TTX may be lethal to a human — “more potent than arsenic, cyanide or even anthrax,” the American science writer Christie Wilcox notes in “Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry” (2016). James Bond nearly dies of it at the end of Ian Fleming’s 1957 novel “From Russia With Love,” when it’s administered by a kick from a boot with a hidden blade and he crumples to the floor; in “Dr. No,” published the following year, it’s determined that the mysterious substance was “fugu poison.” (“Taken us three months,” the doctor reports. “Trust the Russians to use something no one’s ever heard of.”) As recounted in Tom Parker Bowles’s 2006 travelogue, “The Year of Eating Dangerously: A Global Adventure in Search of Culinary Extremes,” the real-life British explorer Captain James Cook had a more direct encounter with the fish in 1774 while trawling the South Pacific, sampling the liver and roe of a recent catch and then waking in the middle of the night to a violent prickling and sense of disembodiment in which “a quart pot full of water and a feather was the same in my hand,” for which only “a vomit and after that a sweat” offered reprieve.

Almost everything written about fugu in the West, including the previous two paragraphs, revolves around the potential for death. To enter a fugu restaurant is cast as a daredevil feat akin to skydiving, with each bite a roll of the dice. You don’t just toddle home afterward with a full belly; you survive. While historically the Western attitude toward Eastern delicacies has often been one of suspicion and disgust, fugu is treated as a special case, not necessarily unpalatable — since it’s not widely available beyond Asia, few in the West have actually tasted it — but a literal threat. Even the lovely chrysanthemum that the chef painstakingly builds on the plate is read as a morbid omen, since, in Japan, the flower traditionally appears in funeral wreaths. Rarely is it mentioned that the chrysanthemum is also a symbol of long life and the signature of the emperor. Without any equivalent on Western menus, diners outside of Japan (and China, where fugu is called hetun and also treasured) tend to assume that the whole point of eating fugu is the risk, latching on to the notion, likely apocryphal, that some chefs will intentionally leave a trace of the toxin in the flesh, just enough to bring a tingling to the lips, a cautionary reminder of our transience on earth.

Yet a Japanese diner experiences no such fear. What that chrysanthemum of fugu on the plate represents is the opposite of risk: its very erasure, through a chef’s precision and skill.

FUGU IS PREHISTORIC. The jawbones of the fish have been unearthed from sites in Japan dating back more than 4,000 years. For those who wonder why those early cooks persisted despite presumed fatalities, Hiroya Kawasaki, a sensory scientist and member of the board of the Kyoto-based Japanese Culinary Academy, points out that the first people to taste blue cheese, with its veins of mold and alarming funk, took a gamble, too. And the Japanese of that far-off era had little choice when food was scarce: Fugu was necessity before it was ever luxury.

To express bafflement over fugu is to ignore the fact that, for much of history, any given mouthful of food could wreak bodily harm. To the innocent eye, the rightly named death cap mushroom, host to nearly a dozen potent toxins and the leading cause of mushroom poisonings around the world, is a ringer for some of its more benign counterparts. Human survival can come down to a plant’s stage of life, a difference of weeks or days: Ackee, Jamaica’s national fruit, starts out hazardous, rich in hypoglycin, which can severely depress blood sugar levels, but as it ripens, the chemical practically vanishes, leaving a wholesome, creamy pulp that when gently fried is as lush as soft-scrambled eggs. And the historian Mary Kilbourne Matossian has theorized that, from the 14th to the 18th centuries, lower-class Europeans periodically suffered from visions and seizures brought on by bread made of rye — a subsistence essential of which peasants may have consumed up to three pounds daily — that had been contaminated by a fungus later used to synthesize LSD. Some believed this crazed behavior to be the work of witches, and tens of thousands were burned at the stake.

Stroll through a modern supermarket and everywhere there are examples of death held at bay, from the pasteurized milk scoured of pathogens to the meat stored at health department-mandated temperatures, to the “raw” cashews, which are in fact preheated after being shucked, to relieve them of any urushiol, the oily resin that puts the poison in poison ivy. Broad federal oversight of food in the United States goes back to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Still, the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly warned over the past four decades that the regulatory system is “fragmented” and, in 2007, added it to a list of areas “at high risk for fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement.” In 2011, the last year a report was released, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 48 million people contract food-borne illnesses in the United States annually.

All eating is an act of trust; when you eat fugu, it’s just that the stakes are higher. In Japan, it’s against the law to serve the fish without a license. Prerequisites vary by area, but in Tokyo, where the rules are among the strictest, two years of specialized training are required before you can take the tests: the first on paper, including pictures of different species (22 are deemed edible by the government, with torafugu, or tiger fugu, the most beloved), each with its own reservoirs of TTX to label, and the second a technical exhibition to show that you can properly gut the fish. First to go are the fins, mouth and tail, then you score down the sides, peel back the skin, turn out the entrails and cut off the eyes. Only once the flesh is clean can you cut the sashimi usuzukuri-style, into gossamer slices, wielding the fugu-hiki, a long, skinny, flexible knife with a blade ground thin that exists only for this purpose.

You have 20 minutes for this performance, according to the Tokyo chef and Japan cultural envoy Naoyuki Yanagihara, and if so much as a fleck of blood remains, you fail. Last year, fewer than half the candidates passed. It’s made even more difficult by the low quality of the fish used: Because top-of-the-line fugu is deemed too expensive to waste on novices, they must settle for specially designated “training fugu,” frozen and “almost rotting inside,” Yanagihara says, around $10 for a whole fish versus the prized live specimens that can go for as much as $100 a pound. “After I passed the test, I bought good fresh fugu, and it was so easy.” All the dangerous bits are locked in a box and later taken to the fish market and incinerated.

Since the prefectures started implementing licenses in 1948, the number of annual fugu poisonings has steadily dropped. (Fugu kimo — liver — was banned in 1983, although it’s reportedly still clandestinely available at some establishments on request, and those who seek it out are perhaps closer to the death-defiers of the Western imagination, like the Kabuki actor Bando Mitsugoro VIII, who is said to have eaten four servings of it in 1975 and did not live to tell the tale; his family won millions of yen in damages and the chef was convicted of negligence.) In 1965 there were 88 deaths; from the 1990s onward, they’ve numbered in the single digits. These are typically chalked up to people catching their own fish and preparing it at home, perhaps a little too breezily.

THE WESTERN UNDERSTANDING of fugu is not so much wrong as incomplete. The deadliness is inseparable from the allure, because it makes the preparation more difficult for the chef, and the final achievement all the greater. But in recent decades, a number of Japanese restaurants have started offering farmed rather than wild fugu — fish bred in underwater cages or in tanks onshore and fed a controlled diet, minus the small crustaceans infested with TTX-bearing bacteria that they eat at sea. As a result, such fish are today believed to be entirely toxin-free. Some scientists have disputed this, arguing that TTX may in fact be produced by glands within the fugu itself, but the marine toxin specialist Tamao Noguchi spent eight years testing more than 7,000 fugu from farms across Japan and found not a trace. Farmed fugu is not only safer but cheaper than wild fugu, turning what was once an aristocrat’s luxury into an attainable pleasure. Chain restaurants now abound, and diners might be invited to catch their own fugu from an aquarium in the dining room.

What then of fugu chefs and their years devoted to training? Has the art of preparing fugu — of quietly, methodically dividing death from delight — entered its own slow fade? We live at a moment when many regard binaries as a form of resistance: wild versus farmed; natural versus industrial; an individual, idiosyncratic restaurant versus a chain of infinitely replicable ones. In the wake of World War II, processed foods were embraced as salvation, auguring liberation for women (traditionally the family cooks) from hours of toil at the stove and a hoped-for end to hunger. As the British historian Rachel Laudan writes in her 2001 essay “A Plea for Culinary Modernism,” suddenly “the food of the elite” was widely available “at a price everyone could afford.” Decades later, the ill effects of an overindustrialized food supply are evident in the dramatic rise in obesity and diseases linked to the homogenization of our diet. As recipes are lost and cooking techniques forgotten, culinary diversity diminishes.

So with each advance in cooking technology has come a defiant retreat. In certain circles, the early 21st-century fanfare over, say, the microwaveable sponge cake has given way to the nurturing of sourdough starters, a pandemic pastime. “Craft can serve as a metaphor for an alternative set of cultural values and work practices in contrast to the dominant norm,” the American anthropologist Susan J. Terrio has written; it becomes an ideological stance, a way for people to assert themselves against an increasingly corporatized, monocultural world. Still, it takes a certain amount of privilege to indulge in nostalgia for a more labor-intensive time. Much of this longing is for an imagined past in which every task in the production of food was intentional and joyous, rather than a matter of necessity. Such work only earned the label “artisanal” when it became a choice.

Accordingly, the romanticization of — and fixation on — fugu as poisonous ignores that there’s more to the fish. Removing the toxic parts is only one step in an elaborate sequence. It might be sold at a predawn auction at Haedomari market in Shimonoseki in western Japan, with bids placed via a coded pressing of fingers beneath the auctioneer’s sleeve, then offer its last gasp under the knife. The chrysanthemum of sashimi is almost a show of force, imposing because few fish can be cut so thin or yield enough slices to create such an elaborate flower. When first cut, “there’s no taste,” Yanagihara says; you have to age the flesh for two to three days to let the flavor deepen, and calibrating the timing is a skill in itself. After the sashimi, the rest of the fish is served: the ribs, kara-age-style (battered and deep-fried); hire-zake, the fins charred and steeped in hot sake; the flesh simmered on the bone in dashi to make a delicate nabe (hot pot); and the milky shira-ko (sperm sacs), barely seared and ready to burst.

THERE HAS BEEN a human cost to fugu over time. Legend has it that the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who unified Japan in 1590, outlawed the fish after losing too many samurai to sloppily prepared dinners, and it continued to be banned on and off — to little avail, as people kept eating it. After regulatory oversight was established following the Second World War, fugu was venerated (and expensive) enough to be reserved for special occasions. By bringing fugu to a broader audience — by denaturing but also democratizing it — farming may have made it relevant to the modern day, as well as saved some species in the wild from overfishing. The Japanese government is now seeking to subsume local licenses into one nationwide standard to help in exporting the fish (with the toxic parts gone). Wild fugu, still considered superior, will continue to be sought by connoisseurs, and farmed fugu could draw new diners to sample its more exalted counterpart.

America may be harder to convince, if only because the appeal of fugu beyond its perceived peril remains elusive. In the American writer T. Coraghessan Boyle’s 1987 short story “Sorry Fugu,” a restaurant critic who’s afraid to admit that she likes the taste of anything confides to a chef that her favorite food is fugu kimo, because “if you just nibble, just a little bit, it numbs your lips, your teeth, your whole mouth” — so you can’t taste anything at all. The chef is appalled; his cooking, hearty and Italian, is explicitly presented as an antidote to such an extinction of pleasure.

Westerners who chronicle their first taste of fugu tend to have a similar reaction, dismissing it as bland. Perhaps the experience is so subtle as to be illegible to someone from another culture. Yukari Sakamoto, a Japanese-American writer and culinary expert based in Tokyo, where she runs Food Sake Tokyo food tours, says that even after more than a decade in the country, where she was born but not raised, she still feels that her palate can’t quite match that of her husband, a Japanese fishmonger. “I grew up in Minnesota,” she says with a laugh. “He’ll tell me, ‘This fish is really good,’ and I’ll think, ‘Oh, well, it’s a little chewy.’” Yanagihara is more lyrical in his description: Texture is what you register first, firm yet elastic, and only then the flavor, clean and delicate, ripening to umami on the tongue. As for the supposed tingle at the lips to remind you death is near, he says he’s never felt it. Kawasaki just scoffs. “You shouldn’t get numbness,” he says. If you do, “it’s psychological.”

Most Western accounts of fugu, like this one, resort to quoting haiku to try to give the fish cultural context. It’s often a verse with a little gallows humor, touting fugu as an escape from unrequited love or mocking the anticlimactic continuation of life after a meal. There’s bravado here, tinged with a bemused fatalism. But the 18th-century poet Yosa Buson, as translated by W.S. Merwin and Takako Lento, was perhaps unusual in taking the perspective of the fish, not the diner, reminding us that we’re not the only ones in danger:

The blowfish glowers

at anyone

he sees.

Special effects by Tomoka Tsuchimochi for Swell New York

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