Blowfish, also known as pufferfish or porcupinefish, is one of today’s most celebrated, averted, superstitious, and captivating dishes in Japanese and Korean cuisine – and has been for more than 2000 years.
The reason that blowfish (“fugu” in Japan) is often avoided is because if it is incorrectly prepared by unlicensed amateurs, blowfish can be lethally poisonous to humans. Death is usually certain to follow blowfish poisoning within four to 24 hours if enough poison is ingested. However, fugu is also highly sought out – intriguing to those who enjoy the thrill of blindly flirting with death.
There have been a few frightening and unsettling stories involving blowfish. This has created a negative stigma concerning blowfish, making it increasingly sought out and yet avoided at all costs.
Death by Blowfish
Today, a number of people die every year from consuming blowfish that has not been properly prepared. When consumed, the victim’s muscles slowly become paralyzed until the entire body is paralyzed. He/she will remain completely conscious the whole time while slowly dying from asphyxia, a lack of oxygen to the body.
50% to 80% of all victims of fugu die within four to 24 hours, remaining conscious the entire time. There is no antidote for blowfish poisoning. The best that can be done is have the victim taken to the hospital and trying to flush the body of the poison.
Real Life Horror Stories
Stories have been told of blowfish victims that were poisoned, rendered paralyzed, and believe to be dead – but woke up a few days later. One victim had believed to be dead and was in the coffin about to be cremated when he awoke – to everyone’s surprise.
Thus, in some parts of Japan, victims of fugu are placed next to their coffins for a few days before burial or cremation to ensure that the person is in fact dead. Until the body begins to decompose, the person remains unburied.
In voodoo, blowfish is used as one of the main ingredients for the purpose of rendering victims paralyzed like zombies.
Eating Blowfish Today
The most prestigious and prominent type of blowfish is the Tiger Blowfish – which, is also the most poisonous. The lethal poison is found in the skin, ovaries, and the liver of the fish, and so these must be removed before being sold. A special knife for slicing the fugu must be used when making blowfish, and the discarded poisonous parts of the blowfish must be handled as hazardous material and not thrown out in the garbage.
Since 1958, only those who have been licensed and qualified to handle, sell, and prepare fugu, are allowed to do so. Less deaths related to fugu have occurred since 1958, and many of today’s blowfish deaths occur while working/preparing blowfish, and when fugu is eaten by untrained amateur chefs.
Many must apprentice for 2-3 years before being able to take a test to becoming licensed. Part of the test requires that the chef properly prepares the fugu and eats it himself. Only 30% of applicants usually pass this test.
A regular dish with fugu can cost anywhere from $20 USD up to about $200 for a meal. Upon eating fugu, most find it bland or tasteless – so some chefs leave a minute amount of poison so that the tongue tingles when it makes contact. When served as sashimi, fugu is sliced so thinly that the plate on which it is served can be seen through the fish.
Most restaurants in Japan and Korea that offer fugu are safe – but be sure to check whether your chef is licensed. It’s probably not worth the risk if they’re not!