Fugu is the Japanese term for the poisionous blowfish, a peculiar fish native to the Pacific Ocean. Considered a delicacy in Japan and the Philippines, the blowfish (scientific name Diodon holacanthus), an unattractive fish that boasts the ability to inflate its body and project protective spikes, contains signifigant amounts of tetrodotoxin, a powerful toxin that will shut down your body faster than an all-day Doctor Who marathon. The lethal dose of tetradotoxin for a full-grown man would fit on a pinhead. Tetrodotoxin is 1,200 times deadlier than cyanide, and one blowfish contains enough poison to kill 30 people. Although the mortality rate of fugu afficionados has been blown out of proportion, it is still a dangerous proposition. During the Meiji period, fugu was prohibited in many areas of Japan. The Tokugawa shogunate completely banned blowfish consumption, but by the mid-1800's it had returned as the government's power over the people waned. Since 1958, Japan has required Sushi chefs who prepare fugu to be licensed...preparing fugu is a long, tedious task that requires great skill and precision. As a result, fugu is prohibitively expensive for most people. It's not unusual to find a fugu meal that costs upwards of $100-200. Neither the risk nor the cost keep it from being immensely popular, however. Haedomari Market in Shimonoseki reportedly rakes in over $40 million dollars every winter from fugu sales alone. After all, it is said "Those who eat fugu soup are stupid. But those who don't eat fugu soup are also stupid."
In a more romantic mode, the Japanese poet Buson remarked:
I cannot see her tonight.
I have to give her up
So I will eat fugu.
Ahh...the innocent pufferfish. Bastard...
Nearly 100 people a year die from fugu poisoning, mostly in outlying areas where the fish are consumed by people untrained to prepare it. One of Japan's most famous Kabuki actors, Mitsugoro Bando VIII, perished from fugu poisoning in 1975. Fugu is the sole delicacy which is not permitted to be served to the Japanese emperor. Most blowfish are harvested in the spring, in the midst of their spawning season, and then raise them in large offshore cages. As soon as the prices begin to rise in the Fall, they begin to sell them. Unlike most fish, which are dredged up out of the ocean and rushed to the market where they perish on a bed of crushed ice in some Japanese fish market, blowfish are sold live. Fugu are very aggressive and posess sharp teeth, so Japanese fisherment sew their mouths shut to keep them from killing each other during transportation.
Eating fugu is an experience, and not something to be rushed through. Typical of Japanese, there is a sort of ritual built around fugu consumption, not unlike a buddhist tea ceremony. First, the blowfish to be eaten is shown to the diners. The sushi chef opens the fish and removes all of its organs, specifically the liver which contains the deadly poison. The fins are then removed and fried, then served in hot sake, known as Fugu Hire-zake. The blowfish skin is painstakingly removed, and de-spiked with pliers, and the skin is then placed in a salad known as Yubiki, flavored with a vinegar/soy dressing called Ponzu. After the skin is removed, the head is cut off and the chef fillets the fish for use in sashimi and then served to the guests.
One more odd thing about blowfish: of all the species of fish, blowfish are the only ones who can close close their eyes, leading one sushi chef to remark "I feel sorry when I kill Fugu because they close their eyes and make a noise that sounds like they are crying."