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Winter Calls for Luck – by Dining the Deadly Fish “Fugu”


As the end of year approaches, the big seasonal food in December is Fugu, the infamous deadly poisonous pufferfish.  Some of its body parts contain a toxin 1000 times deadlier than potassium cyanide.  It used to be very limited in supplies, mostly local to Shimonoseki, the most southern tip of Honshu island and highly seasonal to winter.  In recent years, due to the established and regulated technique of treating the poisonous parts, the advanced freezing facilities, and efficient farming, it is widely available throughout the year.

Forbidden Treasure, Guilty Pleasure

In Japan, there are fossilised Fugu bones approximately 5000 years old, though it is unconfirmed that these villagers died of food poisoning.  Throughout history, Fugu was commonly consumed with the diners’ knowledge of its dangers.  This came to a sudden end in 1592.  Lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi had to ban Fugu because many of his soldiers who gathered in the southern part of Japan dropped dead after eating this local delicacy before launching into the battles.  The soldiers might have been trying their luck, but the situation was too serious to be left unregulated.

The ban continued until the 19th century, although there are many records that people were still eating Fugu.  The famous master Haiku poet, Matsuo Basho (b.1644 – 1694), wrote about his fear of eating the poisonous fish.  The other master, Kobayashi Issa (b. 1763 – 1827), wrote a few Haiku poems praising the delicacy.  There were recipes with Fugu in some cookbooks published in the 17th century.  The rarity, addictive flavour, and danger of tasting them – legally and physically – added a thrill for people of Edo, who were always looking for excitement in very peaceful times.

The official end to the ban came in 1888.  Then prime minister Ito Hirofumi was dining at a famous restaurant in Yamaguchi prefecture, the home of Fugu cuisine.  The chef allegedly did not have enough fresh fish to serve due to the adverse weather, so he had no choice but serve Fugu, the best option for that day.  The Prime Minister was impressed and immediately lifted the ban in Yamaguchi and in adjacent Fukuoka prefecture after nearly 300 years.

Dining Dangerously but Worth the Risk

For chefs, it is a dainty ingredient they feel honoured to work with.  They have to be specially trained and registered to safely handle this deadly fish with poisonous internal organs, especially liver and ovaries.  It is illegal to serve Fugu unless it has been processed at registered premises and by a registered chef.

It is also very flavoursome fish.  Because of the unusually fibrous flesh, Fugu gives a distinctively firm texture when served as thinly sliced sashimi.  It is the skill of the qualified chef to be able to slice thinly and lay them out beautifully to show the art of the plate underneath.  But at the same time, it should not too thin, to retain the texture.

The flavour of the fish comes from the release of inosine acid, one of Umami components.  The concentration of inosine acid keeps going up after the fish is scooped out of the tank and treated by the traditional Japanese technique, Ikejime.  In normal fish, the soft flesh starts to get soggy after a few hours, so it cannot be left too long.  In yjr case of Fugu, because of the firm flesh, it can be left longer to get a higher inosine acid content.  It usually takes 24 to 36 hours to reach the optimal Umami concentration, and a well-balanced elastic texture.  In some cases, the fish is left to mature for five days.  It is up to the chef to determine the best time to serve, and it is the experience and skill that counts.

Fugu = Fuku, Luck for the New Year

It is not only the flesh that is treasured but also the skin, which contains abundant collagen, a nutrient that gives a healthy boost to your skin, and the fins, which are lightly browned to add fragrance to hot Sake, and also the milt which is creamy with a dense flavour.  (The milt, depending on the type, contains relatively less poison.)  It is lightly grilled and eaten with seasoned vinegar, grated radish, or any other light sauces, or in a hotpot.  With the variety of dishes which one fish can supply, it is usually a popular choice for party meals.

The main customers are businessmen of 50 to 60 years old.  The industry is trying to get the younger generation more interested in this famous Japanese fish by offering Fugu Fish and Chips and Fugu Ajillo (Spanish seafood dish).  It is too good to be afraid to eat.  Under the skilled technique of the trained chef, the risk is controlled and minimal.

The name Fugu has a similar sound to the word FUKU, which means luck in Japanese.  Eating dangerously poisonous food, and perhaps surviving it, is considered to bring a lot of luck.  This adds to the attraction of enjoying, not only the flavour and the texture, but also the value of “taking a risk” at the end of the year parties, and looking forward to the new year.


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