20110307-NOAA balloonfish_100.jpg
Blowfish have two very effective methods of defense: their bodies are covered by prickly spines and they can inflate themselves to three times their real size. Their relatives include the mola mola and the boxfish.

Blowfish gulp down water to inflate themselves like rigid balls and raise their spines to make themselves look threatening and unappetizing to predatosr. When bitten or swallowed by a predator they can still inflate themselves to two or three times their normal size and predators can not swallow or digest hem and have to spit them out.

Blowfish inflate themselves by pumping water into their stomachs (digestive functions are performed almost entirely by the small intestine).The blowfish stomach is pleated and can increase to 10 times its normal size. As the fish expands its spine bends into an upside-down position, with its internal organs squeezed between the backbone and the expanding stomach. The elastic skin stretches while a pleated inner skins hardens, giving the fish its rigidity. The pointed spikes which inwards when the fish is relaxed become erect and outward-pointing when the skin is stretched.

The boxfish is an unusual creature that has two sets of skeletons: one to support its body and another to support its internal organs. Resembling a pufferfish, it has a boxy shape produced by a rectangular (sometimes five sided) bony armor that covers two thirds soft their body. Its shape doesn’t look very hydrodynamic but actually is, and is especially well adapted for moving up and down and backward in the water column as well as forward. Automobile engineers at Mercedes Benz are studying the box shape to produce more aerodynamic vehicles.

Boxfish, pufferfish. ballonfish and cowfish (a close relative of the box fish whose frame extends forward to give it an appearance of having horns) propels themselves using their dorsal fin and anal fin and steer using their pectoral fins and tail. For many fish it is the other way around. Box fish can move quite quickly: six body lengths a second, stabilized by the keel-like edges of its carapace.

Good Websites and Sources: Good Blog Report on Fugu ; Wikipedia article on Fugu Wikipedia ; Fugu Preparation Video YouTube ; Eating Fugu ; Personal Account of Fugu Poisoning ; Endangered Blowfish ; New York Times article on Book on Blowfish and Zombies


Fugu (Blowfish) in Japan

Osaka fugu restaurant
Eating fugu, Japanese puffer fish, has been called the gastronomic equivalent of playing Russian roulette. A powerful poison is found in the fugu's ovaries, kidneys, skin, eyes, liver and intestines. It is one of the most toxic substances known, hundreds of times more poisonous than strychnine or cyanide and so deadly that just of trace of it can kill an adult man in minutes. [Source: Noel Vietmeyer, National Geographic]

The most dangerous part of the fish is the liver, which Japanese say is also near the tastiest meat. The methods for removing the poison from the liver are not always reliable. The best fugu chefs leave in just enough poison so it tingles the lips and gives one a tastes of the fragility of life.

Despite all this fugu is popular dish. Japanese eat 10,000 tons of fugu a year. There are 80,000 fugu chefs in Osaka alone. Fugu is considered a winter delicacy, typically eaten in December and January. There are numerous types of puffer fish, also known as blow fish and globefish, with the fish of choice being torafugu, a species that is found in Japanese waters. The word “fugu” is made of two Chinese characters meaning “river” and “pig.”

fugu nabe
Fugu bones have been found in burial mounds from the Jomon period (10,000 B.C. to 300 B.C.). Fugu was mentioned in Japan's first historical records, written in 720. In the late 1500s, fugu was banned by Toyotomi Hideyoshi after a mass poisoning of troops took place before an invasion of Korea. The ban remained in place for 200 years until, one story goes, Japan's first prime minister Hirobumu Ito ate some and survived and enjoyed it so much he demanded that the ban be lifted.

Shimonoseki on the southern tip of Honshu is particularly famous for fugu. About 500 fugu chef's live here. There is a bronze monument of a fugu in front of the fish market. There are even fugu pictured on the city's manhole covers. Every February people pray for a good puffer catch before a special shrine and fishermen send the Emperor a fugu as a gift. A local tourist brochure reads: "In the past, eating fugu was an adventure risking one's life."

The Japanese Emperor is forbidden from even touching fugu. In the Edo period (1603-1867) samurai were ordered to extinguish their family lines if they became poisoned.

History of Fugu in Japan

fugu sashimi
The Haiku poet Tosa Buson wrote: I cannot see her tonight I have to give her up So I will eat fugu

Japan’s greatest poet Basho wrote: Having eaten fugu soup Even though there also sea bream How irrational he was

Blow Fish Poisoning

Tetrodotoxin is the poison in fugu. A neurotoxin that shuts down electrical signals in the nerves by disrupting the flow of sodium ions into nerve cells, it is about 500 to 1,000 times stronger than potassium cyanide. It is generally found in the intestines, liver and ovaries of the fish. One gram of fugu poison is enough to kill 500 people. There is no known antidote.

Another word for fugu in Japan is teppo ("pistol"). It comes from the expression teppo ni ataru ("to be shot"). The word ataru also means "to suffer from food poisoning."

Fugu poisoning first causes dizziness, numbness of the mouth and lips, weakness, nausea, diarrhea, sweating, breathing trouble, cramps, blue lips, intense itchiness, vomiting, and dilated pupils. Victims who eat a lot go into a zombie sleep in which victims are aware of what is going on but can't move.

Powerful toxins (lethal dose): 1) anthrax (0.0002); 2) cone shell (0.004); 3) textrodoxotine in the blue ring octopus and puffer fish (0.008); 4) inland taipan snake (0.025); 5) eastern brown snake (0.036); 6) Dubois’s sea snake (0.044); 7) coastal taipan snake (0.105); 8) beaked sea snake (0.113); 9) western tiger snake (0.194); 10) mainland tiger snake (0.214); 11) common death adder (0.500). Lethal doses is defined as the amount in milligrams needed to kill 50 percent of the animals tested.

Some fugu are poisonous and some aren’t, but even experts can’t explain why. Some scientists believe fugu is not naturally toxic. They have argued that fugu get the poison from ingesting tetrodotoxin-laden vibrio bacteria that is found in creatures that puffer fish such as starfish, worms and shellfish Others disagree, saying a fugu’s toxicity is produced by poison glands beneath the skin.

Scientists in Nagasaki have raised nonpoisonous fugu by feeding them a diet of mackerel and other nonpoisonous food. Fugu aficionados who have eaten these fish say they taste just as good as fugu with lethal organs. Some restaurant have a keen interest in offering the liver from the nonpoisonous fugu because this is the part of the fish, normally forbidden. Other sniff at the idea. One told AP, “Nontoxic fugu is boring. Fugu is exciting because it is toxic.”

Death from Fugu Poisoning

Every year dozens of people in Japan suffer from fugu poisoning and few of these die. Fourteen people died of fugu poisoning between 2002 and 2006. In 2003, three people died. In 2000, two people died. In 1997, a bad year of fugu poisoning, six of the eight people who died from food poisoning nationwide died of fugu poisoning. In early 2009 six men in northern Japan were poisoned when they ate grilled blowfish testicles prepared by an unlicensed chef.

In the 1950s, 400 people were killed and 31,056 were sickened in one year alone. About 60 percent of people who eat tainted fugu die. Most of the fugu poisonings and deaths are attributed to amateur chefs who try to cut up the fish themselves without undergoing the special training needed to prepare it.

About 60 percent of the people who die from fugu poisoning suffer what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration called a "rapid and violent death." Within three to 30 minutes of eating fugu tainted with poison, victims begin showing symptoms. Many die from eating the liver which afficionados say is---a great delicacy; once you eat, you can not stop.”

Fugu poisoning victims generally die with six to 24 hours after eating fugu, depending on the amount of poison ingested. Paralysis spread through the body while the victim is conscious. Death usually occurs from respiratory failure after the victims has gone into convulsions. One restaurant owner told National Geographic, "Even though you can think very clearly your arms and legs become numb. It becomes impossible to sit up. You can think but you cannot speak, cannot move and soon cannot breathe." In Japan, if someone died the family waits a few days before the burial incase the victim wakes up.

Many of the victims have been foolish. In January 1975, Mitsugoro Bando VIII, a Kabuki actor who was so famous he was designated a national treasure, died after having convinced a Kyoto restaurant to give him four servings of lethal fugu liver because he enjoyed the tingling sensation creating on his tongue and cheeks. First his arms and leg were paralyzed, then he had trouble breathing. He was dead in eight hours.

Between 1974 and 1984 over 200 people died of fugu poisoning in Japan, most from intentionally or non intentionally eating the liver from fish prepared at home. Captain James Cook almost died of fish after he tried a piece of liver in New Caledonia. In From Russia with Love one villain tried to kill James Bond with puffer fish poison.

A Canadian company is working on drugs that kill pain and offer addiction relief made from fugu poison. The drugs work by stopping the nerves from sending pain signals to the brain.

Zombies and Puffer Fish

In his books The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) and Passage to Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988), ethnobiologist Wade Davis argued that zombies were created by giving people tetrodotoxin poison taken from puffer fish that when given in the right doses makes a victim descend to near death and then awaken in a zombie-like state. The Serpent and the Rainbow was made into a film directed by the producer to The Nightmare on Elm Street series.

Victims of tetrodotoxin are paralyzed and have very light breathing just before they die. People who are poisoned but don’t die report being fully conscious while they are paralyzed but being unable to respond. In Japan there are stories of people who ate fugu and were presumed to be dead but woke up after a few days of having being in deep coma-like state of paralysis or woke up just as they were about to be cremated by relatives.

Although Davis never witnessed a zombie possession ceremony or even saw a zombie he spent two years among boukors (voodoo sorcerers) who almost always used puffer fish as an ingredient for "zombie powders" along with grated human bones and plants and herbs. To protect themselves while making the powders boukors placed cotton in their noses and covered themselves with burlap bags.

Many scholars criticized Davis's work because he never saw any zombies, some of his data was misrepresented and samples of his so-called "zombie powders" had hardly any toxins in them.

Preparing Fugu

fugu fins
To prepare fugu a cook must follow 30 prescribed steps. After the poisonous parts have been removed with a hocho knife the fish is cut into pieces and then washed under water to remove the toxins and blood. The poisoned organs are placed in special bags that must be kept under lock and key and disposed of like radioactive waste in a special incinerator.

Chefs who prepare fresh fugu take a live fish from a tank and knock it unconscious with a blow to the head with a mallet. The flesh is cut into thin slices and the heart is removed while it is still beating. Applying pressure to certain area around its gills cause the fish to puff up.

Some chefs say that removing the portions that contain the toxins is a relatively simple process. Others disagree. The poisonous parts can vary between different species of blowfish. One marine biologist told the Daily Yomirui. “Even professionals have trouble determining the poisonous part of some blowfish because they differ by type. The same fish needs to checked by more than one person with proper knowledge.”

The famed sushi chef Yitaka Sasaki told the Los Angeles Times that the notion of fugu making a diner’s lip number is a fallacy. “That’s a lie,” he said. “If you’re eating fugu and your lips turn numb. You’re well on way to being dead..”

Licensing of Fugu Chefs

It takes about 11 years to become a full-fledged fugu chef. All cooks in Tokyo that prepare fugu are licensed. They have go through a three year apprenticeship under a master, take intensive courses, pass a written exam and show skill making about a dozen types of fugu dishes.

An apprentice studying to get his fugu license told National Geographic, "There's a written exam that lasts two hours. They next day they hand you fugu, knife and twin pans.” In 20 minutes test-takers must put all the poisonous parts in one pan and all the edible parts in the other, label the parts with plastic tags (red for toxic, black for edible) and prepare a meal in an artful arrangement. The hardest part of the test is separating out the female ovaries, one of the deadliest parts, which look almost identical to the male’s testicles, which are a delicacy. If you mix them you fail the test. Around 800 to 900 people take the test every year, with about two thirds of those taking it passing.

The chefs in Tokyo may have to serve a three-year apprenticeship and have to pass a stringent test under the watchful eyes of health officials but this is not the case everywhere. There is no centralized regulation and it is difficult to say for sure who is licenced and who isn’t, Only 19 of Japan’s 47 prefectures requires chefs to pass an exam to obtain a fugu license.

Puffer Fish Dishes

fugu restaurant
Generally a fugu meal goes for between $40 and $100 per person and typically has five courses with raw fugu being first followed by fried fugu and stews, soups and broths made with parts such as skin and testes. Boiled fugu is often marinated in vinegar and topped with daikon radish-hot pepper sauce and dipped in a mixture of Welsh green onion, seaweed and soy sauce.

In Shimonoseki, thin slices of raw fugu are wrapping around thin slices of fish around slivers of green onions and dipped in a sauce made of soy sauce, radish and red pepper. This is followed fugu stew (nabe), featuring chunks of fugu meat cooked at the table in an earthen pot along with cabbage, spinach, tofu and shiitake mushrooms. Items are extracted from the pot with chopsticks and dipped in soy sauce and citrus juice, sometimes flavored with chili paste and grated daikon. The tail is used as a decoration and the remaining stew broth is mixed with rice. All this is for about $80 per person.

The thinly sliced raw flesh of the tiger fugu is said to be the best. A plate of the paper thin slices for four people, arranged into patterns of flowers or birds, goes for over $200.

Fugu testicles eaten before the mating season, when they are full and mature, are regarded as a special delicacy. Hot sake prepared with fugu fins has a reputation for producing a mellow buzz. Many restaurants serve the slices in the shape of chrysanthemum, a traditional funeral flower.

Eating Fugu

Fugu is very popular in Japan. Tokyo has around 800 certified fugu restaurants. There are about 3,800 nationwide. The certification that shows that chefs have passed the fugu preparation test generally is prominently displayed.

Fugu is traditionally eaten in the winter and associated with the city of Shimonoseki. January and February are the best times to eat fugu because cold water makes the meat more elastic. Wild fish caught when there is a cold wind are said to be especially tasty.

fugu nabe
Fugu is a dense, white fish with a very delicate and arguably ordinary taste. Japanese like the texture and elasticity of the meat. Many Westerners complain that fugu is overrated. With all the fuss and danger associated with it, the bottom line is that fugu doesn’t taste all that great. Noel Vietmeyer wrote in National Geographic, "The meat had no fiber and was almost like gelatin. It is very light in taste. More like chicken than fish, with a slight hint that it is a seafood." Often the various sauces and seasoning have more taste than the fugu.

Fugu aficionados like a little poison, enough to tingle the lips and numb the tongue. The ultimate dish is chiri, fugu cooked in a broth made from the poisonous livers and intestines. Some even eat the poisonous organs (after the poison has been soaked out). Hirezake (cooked fugu tail in hot sake) is traditionally sipped with a fugu dinner. Sometimes it set on fire first to burn off some of the alcohol. Women like dishes with the skin because it contains large amounts of collagen, which is said to be good for human skin.

When eating fugu is considered bad manners to make jokes about the dangers associated with the fish such as insisting that other people eat the first bite or faking convulsions. Worst of all is acting horrified over the cost when the bill arrives.

Restaurants in Osaka serve twice as much fugu as restaurants in Tokyo. In Tokyo people pay extra money get top name Shimonoseki brand. People from Osaka don’t care. They want to eat something that is supposed to be expensive but get at a cheap price. Tokyoites prefer their fugu prepared as shashimi arranged is elegant displays. People from Osaka like theirs cooked with vegetables in a pot of nabe.

Raising Farmed Blow Fish

In Japan, 22 different kinds of fugu have been approved by the government for use in restaurants. But the poison is found in different organs in different fish and sometimes is found in the tissue and skin. That is one reason why the licensing process is so rigorous.

Most fugu are farm raised and these are less dangerous than fugu found in the open sea. Farmed fugu are raised in large circular tanks and have their mouths sewn shut so they don’t attack one another. Today some fish farmers are raising filefish, a fish with a taste similar to fugu.

About 4,500 tons of farmed fugu is produced in Japan annually. It sells for about one fifth the price of wild fugu. You can tell the difference between farmed and wild fugu by tasting the white meat. Farmed fish taste like sardines and mackerel, the fish they are fed, while wild fish tastes like shrimp and crab the food they feed they on.

Noguchi of Nagasaki University is raising non-poisonous fugu with the aim of selling the liver, the sale of which has been banned since 1983. In some ways he laments his potential success, telling National Geographic, “a fugu without its poison is like a samurai without his sword.”

In 2009, Optima Foods, a company in Ehime Prefecture, announced that it successfully bred takifugu to be poison-free on an aqua farm in the middle of the mountains in a pond made of underground mineral water mixed with salt and minerals. Restauranteurs said the fish were bigger than those caught in the sea and the meat tasted much better than other farmed fugus.

The blowfish trade is strictly regulated by local governments. Those who break the ordinances on the sale of blowfish in Tokyo can be imprisoned for up to two years and fined ¥500,000. In 2002, an unlicenced company in Hokkaido shipped a large amount of blowfish containing poisonous parts.

There are 20 firms in Shimonoseki hat specialize n removing the harmful organs. Today at supermarkets and at fishmongers you can buy fugu that has been gutted and boned and ready to eat as sashimi or thrown in a pot of nabe.

Catching Wild Puffer Fish

a beached fugu
Connoisseurs prefer wild varieties, which are generally much more expensive. The best ones are said to caught in the Yellow Sea or off Hagi, Yamagata Prefecture, in the Sea of Japan followed by those caught off Tokuyama (Chunan) in Yamaguchi Prefecture and those taken in the Bungo Channel and the Sea of Genkai. These day many wild blowfish are caught in the Sea on Enshu. This was no the case a few years ago and may to be the result of a change in ocean currents

Mitsuho Yoshida wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Their birth and breeding matter. Their looks also are important. They are not supposed to have buck teeth, a spoon-like chin or even a beetle brow.

Haedomari Market in Shimonoseki is the sole market specializing in the fugu trade. The auction there starts after 3:00am. Quality fish known as beppin or beauties, are sold mostly to high-end restaurant in Tokyo and Osaka. About 300 tons are wild blowfish are put on auction every year at the market, with an average of about 1 ton a day. Blowfish sold at the market are distributed as “fugu from Shimonoseki,” regarded as a top blowfish brand both in terms of taste and safety.

The main fugu fishing season is from October to February. Many of the vessels that seek fugu n the Sea of Enshu leave from Maisaka Port in Shizuoka Prefecture. Each morning at 4:30am a lottery is held to the location of where each of the 60 ships will fish in the ocean with the vessels leaving port before dawn to catch blowfish with long lines and returning to port in the afternoon with about half the catch loaded onto to trucks and transported live to Shimonoseki.

Image Sources: Fugu: 1) JNTO 2) Japan Visitor 3) 6) 7) Phil Haack's Haacked blog; 4) Shimonoseki site 5) Ray Kinnane 8) Hector Garcia. Other fish: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2012

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