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Fugu is a seasonal Japanese dish made from the poisonous puffer fish and is popular in winter. The fish is usually cut into wafer-thin slices and served in a fan pattern as sashimi. Chefs must undergo intensive training before they are allowed to prepare it.

What is fugu?

Fugu is a seasonal Japanese dish that’s made from puffer fish that’s enjoyed during the winter months. The fish is usually cut into wafer-thin slices and served in a fanned pattern as sashimi. In some eateries, you can order a whole menu derived from fugu, consisting of at least six individual courses. 

Fugu, the Japanese word for this fish, means river pig. However, no matter how cute this big-eyed beast looks, the fact is it’s one of the most poisonous fish around. The key thing to consider here is the risk factor. If the fish is not prepared correctly, the neurotoxic poison is released into its flesh and there’s a significant risk of death to those who subsequently eat the meat. The poison is a thousand times stronger than cyanide, with no known antidote to nullify its effects. 

In Japan, puffer fish have been savoured for centuries. Since the end of the sixteenth century, the Japanese government has repeatedly imposed and then lifted bans on catching puffer fish. The ban on eating the liver of the fish, often cited as the tastiest part of the fish, is still in place due to the fact this is the most poisonous part of the animal. 

Today, fugu made from fish caught wild is a delicacy in Japan. Fugu chefs must study for around three years before they receive a license to prepare the fish. There are also specially certified fugu fish farmers, where expert professionals clean the fish. Once the animal is free of poison, the fish can be sold, even for everyday consumers looking to cook it at home. 

The Japanese don’t seem to be perturbed by the poisonous reputation of the puffer fish, with the nation consuming about ten thousand tons of fugu per year. Occasional fugu related deaths occur, but this is usually down to people catching the animal in the wild themselves and preparing it at home without following the necessary steps to ensure safe consumption. 

Did you know...

In 2009, scientists bred the first ever non-poisonous puffer fish. However, the wild, toxic variant remains the most popular option in Japan.

How to make fugu

The art of preparing fugu has nothing to do with boiling the fish, but rather in the cleaning of it. The inedible parts must be removed from the edible parts with precision, ensuring toxic and non-toxic parts never come into contact with each other. A single drop of poison would kill thirty people. 

Fugu masters begin by placing the fish on a chopping board, setting aside two containers reserved for poisonous and safe fish parts. First the head is cut away, then the skin is removed. Finally comes the most important and risky stage of the preparation: the removal of the ovaries and intestines. 

Once all the tonic parts are discarded, the fish is prepared for culinary use. Thin slices can be cut for sashimi, coated with batter and fried for tempura, or slow-cooked in a stew.

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