I take the train from the arcade in Kawasaki back up to Shibuya for one last adventure of the day. I stop by my hotel and pick up all my medical information and insurance cards and put them in my wallet. Why? Because they might just save my life. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
A local Tokyo friend of a friend recommended a chain called Toro Fugu for being very highly respected (and highly priced) place to eat fugu. When your life literally could be on the line, I figured it was best not to go for the cheapest route and go with an established location.
The fugu in this restaurant are prepared to order – and this is the tank of fish that greets you as you enter.
I am shown to my own private traditional dining area and start working out what to order. They end up getting one of the chefs who spoke a bit of English to come by and we chat briefly about a few options. I opt for the fugu sashimi platter, a bowl of fugu spine soup. Both of which come highly recommended as great first dishes – and the ‘safest’ of the fugu dishes to try. At this point, part of me started considering the wisdom of ordering potentially deadly food when I don’t even speak the language…
Before we go on, a little bit about fugu. Fugu, or pufferfish, is one of the most celebrated and notorious dishes in Japanese cuisine. It is a dangerously poisonous fish that requires extremely careful preparation. Mistakes in preparation are often fatal. Its preparation is strictly controlled by law in Japan. Only chefs who have qualified through rigorous multi-year training programs are allowed to deal with the fish for public consumption. Apparently only about 30% of chefs pass the first time they take the certification test. For reference, only 17 restaurants in the United States are legally cleared by the FDA to serve fugu and it was illegal up until only a few years ago. Even with that, all domestic US restaurants have the fish properly cleaned and prepared in Japan before being flown over.
So how many people do get poisoned? In Japan from 1996 to 2006, between 34 and 64 victims a year end up hospitalized from fugu poisoning and anywhere from 0 to 6 persons die each year. The majority of these poisonings, however, involved fishermen eating their own catch. Many cases also involve folks who eat the internal organs such as the liver and ovaries, which are considered delicacies, but are also the most poisonous. Bandō Mitsugorō VIII, a famous kabuki actor, deliberately ordered four fugu livers to feel the rush and claimed to be immune. He died seven hours later. So, I’d say the danger is very real.
What is the story with the poison? It’s called tetrodotoxin (TTX). Tetrodotoxin is a potent neurotoxin which shuts down electrical signals in the nerves. Lethal doses are usually 8μg / kg of body weight. So a 170lb person would be killed by the miniscule amount of 0.62 milligrams. This is 1200 times more deadly than cyanide. On average, a single fish has enough poison to kill 13 people. Further, the potency is not affected by cooking so it doesn’t matter how much you did or didn’t cook it.
What are the symptoms? In light (or heavy doses), one usually immediately feels a bit of burning in the mouth or lips as soon as they eat it. This passes and they start feeling numbness in their extremities (fingers/toes/nose/etc) and a light airy feeling in their chest This is actually the feeling most people that eat fugu strive for. Many restaurants allow a miniscule amount of the toxin to remain on their portions so that diners get that feeling. One scientist, who had been bitten by a snake with neurotoxic venom, described it as the kind of peaceful light-headed feeling that people are supposed to get in the last few moments before they drown. That, combined with a tingling body, is the experience many desire and expect from their fugu dining experience.
More than that amount and…well… it becomes not pleasant quickly. There are many harrowing stories of folks who have been poisoned. The lightness progresses to dizziness, exhaustion, headache, and gradual loss of muscle control. More severe doses cause nausea and difficulty breathing as the poison works itself inward to core organs. Ultimately, loss of all muscle control results. This includes the respiratory system. Breathing then stops and asphyxiation follows – which is the ultimate cause of death from tetrodotoxin. Since the neurotoxin does not cross the brain-blood barrier, victims are fully conscious while their bodies shut down. Some have described it as sinking feeling, or being ‘entombed’ in your own paralyzed body. Near fatal poisonings often put people in a coma, sometimes even a waking coma. The time from consumption to collapse can be anywhere from a 4 hours to only minutes. There is no known antidote and treatment consists of emptying the stomach, feeding them active charcoal to bind the toxin, and putting the victim on life support until the poison wears off while keeping their fingers crossed.
It’s probably best I didn’t know all of this before I ate it.
Shortly, my order arrives. The sashimi is sliced razor thin – as I had read. You could literally see through it. I say a little prayer, and take a bite of my first (and hopefully not last) piece.
Fugu is a white fish, and as such, does not have a heavy fishy taste. In fact, it’s quite light. It almost has a smoked taste to it. Closest I could think of is a cross between yellowtail and cod. The texture, however, is unique. It’s somewhat rubbery like octopus; but lumpy – not smooth. The lumpier spots were rubbery and the bits between were soft and yellow-tail like. Overall, it was very good flavor – but not a knock your socks off experience (IMHO).
The spine soup was also very good. The long, white strips are fugu skin and spines. This was mixed with radishes and other bitey-flavored strong vegetable cuttings in a light vinegar soup. Again, the fugu bits were very mild flavored and a bit chewy. Mixed with the radishes and other strong vegetables – it made a great combination of flavors.
A final round came – the fried fugu. This turned out to be a bit much for me as the fish came STILL TWITCHING.
The charcoal grill was great and cooking up the pieces was really awesome.
I will however, say I did not finish my fried fugu. In truth, I was starting to feel a bit strange. While eating the bowl of spines, I did get a little burn on my lips. It was the same kind of burn that hot BBQ sauce would leave on your lips. This passed within a minute or two, but I did in fact notice my fingertips get a tingly sensation to them and my chest felt ‘airy’ and light. I found it to be a disconcerting feeling. I decided a plate of fugu sashimi and a bowl of spines and skin was enough tempting of fate and called it a night. On my way home, I did feel the ‘light/airy’ feeling that is associated with eating fugu. Personally, I wasn’t really digging it. You felt your body acting a bit strange. For me, I felt my fingertips be a bit numb, then it would move to a light/airy feeling in my chest, then my legs, then repeated the cycle. I never got the nausea or dizziness of the next stages – which according to what I read – means I got a very well prepared dish of fugu.
I monitoring how I felt for a solid 4 hours while reading and watching tv until I felt like things were not moving on to stronger stages, then tentatively went to bed. When I awoke in the morning, I could certainly feel the same shifting around of the feelings – but much less so. Still, the feeling stuck with me until about noon of that day when I got some good walking in and ate a great lunch.
So what did I learn? Was it worth it?
I would say yes – for the pure experience factor and only if you go to very high-end, well respected places. Fugu is simultaneously a nationally celebrated and notorious dish. It’s consistently rated at the top of the most dangerous foods to eat. Even the Simpsons had an episode about it. To say you’ve done it does put you in a small crowd.
Is it worth the risk for the flavor of the dish? No, I can’t say it is. While good, it’s not markedly better than most other kinds of sashimi I’ve had. It does have a unique texture and a really pleasant, delicate taste (again, closest I can think of is a chewy yellowtail). But I had much more enjoyment from the ultra-fresh sushi I enjoyed at Tsujiki.
Would I do it again – almost certainly not. After the odd feelings I had for nearly 24 hours afterwards, it certainly isn’t something I would like to repeat. I found that part to be more disconcerting than invigorating. Not having control over what your body is doing is not something I enjoy – but could understand why some would. For me, I tempted fate once and came out fine. I apparently got a very well prepared dish of fugu, got a taste of tetrodotoxin, and lived – but it’s not a flavor I think is worth tempting fate twice for.