Japan's Fugu Is a Delicacy—but Is It Poisson or Poison?

Nobuyoshi Kuraoka is struggling to define fugu’s cachet. “The taste,” he says, “is elusive. It is like the flowering cherry, the symbol of Japanese idealism, the Japanese mind.” Then Kuraoka, whose Manhattan restaurant is one of the few in the United States that serves the exotic fish, has another thought. “Fugu also comes from the Japanese code—[from] the samurai. People are more concerned how to die than how to live.” That may sound a little more solemn than the average food jingle, but then fugu isn’t just any old piece of fish.

Fugu is the Japanese puffer fish, which lives relatively safe from natural enemies because it has two major defensive weapons. When attacked, it inflates itself until it is too big to be ingested. And, if that ruse doesn’t work, its various organs produce tetrodotoxin, a deadly, quick-acting poison that attacks the central nervous system of any predator foolish enough to swallow the fish.

But so delicate is the taste of fugu that one predator is willing to risk a terrible death to ingest it—and willing to pay good money for it. Properly prepared and detoxified, fugu is one of the great delights of Japanese cuisine, and every year its devotees flock to restaurants. Every year, though, poison from improperly cleaned fugu takes its toll; lips tingle, numbness spreads through limbs, and the muscles involved in breathing stop doing their job. Some years, as many as 100 Japanese fugu fanciers never make it to dessert.

Kuraoka has been serving fugu at his Restaurant Nippon since last March, after four years of negotiating with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is rightly concerned about a main course that can kill people. Under the stringent FDA requirements, Kuraoka imports only the tiger puffer fish, which is safer than the other 14 varieties eaten in Japan. And he imports only from the city of Shimonoseki. “In the 50 years of licensing of fugu, there has never been a single incident of poisoning from fish from Shimonoseki,” he boasts reassuringly.

Fugu is air-freighted to the U.S. only during the safe (nonmating) period, from October to March, and only after extensive inspections. “I would say it is the safest of fish,” says Kuraoka. Of course, even after all the inspections and washing and cleaning and flash-freezing, the fugu still retains traces of its poisons (up to one part per 5,000 is permissible). “That trace,” says Kuraoka, “will just stimulate the blood circulation. That will make you feel happy a little bit.”

When it comes to fugu, a little bit of happiness goes a long way.

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