Fugu blowfish or puffer fish is famed for its expense, and deadly poisonous propensities. Its ancient nickname is the teppo, ‘the pistol’, from its ability to dispatch careless eaters into the next life. The active ingredient here is tetrodoxin, a clear, tasteless, odorless poison 13 times stronger than arsenic - 2mg is enough to do you in. One species contains enough to kill 33 people.
Is Fugu Safe? There's Only One Way To Find Out...
Fortunately, specially trained chefs remove most of the poison, leaving just enough to numb your lips. In theory, at least. Most fatalaties are caused by do-it-yourself fugu chefs who get it wrong. We have no qualms about eating it whatsoever. The most damage it is likely to do is to your wallet.
Torafugu 'tiger fugu', from its beautiful skin pattern, is the most prized. Other varieties include the karasufugu crow puffer, mafugu a less valued variety, and the particularly deadly shosaifugu.
Fugu is mostly caught in Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Ehime, Kagawa and Toyama prefectures, but it is best known in the city of Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture, at the very most Western tip of Honshu. It is in Shimonoseki where the pre-dawn, secretive fugu auctions known as seri take place. As a result, the city's fugu specialist restaurants have developed a reputation for being the nation's best. Osaka, whose residents famously love the stuff, would beg to differ.
Fugu is generally caught between November and April, slightly earlier in Tohoku and Hokkaido. When the rapeseed blooms, generally from February to March, it is called natane fugu, indicating the end of the season, when it is tastiest.
Blowfish is served mainly as sashimi, deep-fried as kara'age, which is excellent, and in the nabemono hotpot dish known as chirinabe. It may appear as fugu sushi, with the fish just fire-grilled -aburi -on the surface, topping rice, or, served with momiji oroshi daikon and negi Welsh onions, but this is relatively rare. Tessa fugu sashimi, far more common, is a wonderful thing, the puffer fish sliced so thinly that you can see the design on the porcelain serving dish through the transparent fish meat. The tiny amount of poison left within the fugu is just enough to numb your lips, remember. Death is not imminent. Probably.
Fugu shirako is a gourmet delight. It is roasted fugu milt - yup, sperm - and is often served, not inexpensively, a sake accompaniment. In hirezake the puffer fish's toasted fins are served in hot sake, lending a wonderful charcoal-fishy touch to your nihonshu. It's a real body warmer in the depth of a Japanese winter. Miuraya in Asakusa, Hamato in Roppongi and Yamamoto in Tsukiji; Yanagiya and Shogoin Ranmaru in Kyoto; Fuguyoshi in Osaka's Kitashinchi, the Kuromon Ichiba market, and the superb Kitahachi in Kishiwada (Osaka prefecture) are all worth visiting. In Shimonoseki - or 'Shimo' as the locals call it - try the ryotei Fuku-Kitagawa or Shunpanrou Honten.
One last note. If you get the chance you should see the episode of the Simpsons where Bart thinks he's got fugu poisoning. It's pretty funny.