The Deadliest Catch

The Deadliest Catch

Twenty years ago, just as it was entering its golden era, The Simpsons introduced the world at large to fugu (or blowfish, or pufferfish, or balloonfish). At Lisa’s insistence, the jaundiced family headed out to a Japanese restaurant for some sushi. All was going well until Homer insisted on ordering the potentially deadly fugu, which a junior chef seemed to botch and serve anyway. The prognosis for the balding father was not good, which is true to life: eating the wrong part of a pufferfish can cause death.

As you might expect from the Simpsons, wasn’t all documentary-accurate. First of all, Homer orders, and is happy with, uni (sea urchin) which of course would never really happen. Secondly, Dr Hibbert’s assertion that: “You’ll feel no pain at all, until some time tomorrow evening, when your heart suddenly explodes,” isn’t accurate. No, when tetrodotoxin, the fugu poison, works its way into your system, you are paralysed completely, awake but dying and unable to move – it’s like the dreaded locked-in syndrome, basically. So there you sit, dying, knowing it, and unable to act. Had The Simpsons stuck to reality, it would have been the bleakest episode of all time.

Strangely it isn’t the fish that generates the poison, rather it eats a bacteria that is loaded with the stuff. A genetic mutation has allowed the fugu to become immune to its effects, processing the poison through its liver like anything else. Now that people know this, there are pockets of sellers trying to raise farmed fugu on something else, making it safe to eat.

Of course that’s a very recent development. It was banned completely during the Edo period, and only partially available during the Meiji era. To this day, it is the only delicacy denied to the Emperor. You wouldn’t know it’s dangerous in Shimonoseki, though. As Mickey Mouse is to Disneyland, so fugu is to this city on the western tip of Honshu. You find the wide-eyed fatties hanging from ceilings, on seat-covers on buses, in enormous bronze statues and, of course, at virtually every restaurant in town. Over half of all Japan’s pufferfish catch passes through this city – it’s big business. Being so close to the source helps to drive price down a little too, but the deadly little dish is still frightfully expensive: even a very reasonable restaurant will charge ¥2500 (£20) or a small plate of fugu sashimi. Part of the cost comes from fugu chefs requiring an official license to prepare and sell the product.

So with all the fuss, when we arrived to the excellent Nakakyu Sushi and sat in front of a plate of the infamous fugu, we were filled with excitement. As instructed, we delicately wrapped a piece of spring onion with the translucent fish, then dipped it slightly in some ponzu and nervously dropped into our mouths. It was chewy, and we could definitely taste the onion and the sauce and, well, not much else. We tried again: the same. We decided to have a bit on its own, without any garnish.

It turns out that the terror of the east, the world famous fugu tastes of… virtually nothing. It’s like water – yes, there may be some subtle differences for people who know how to look for such things, but for the general punter it’s near flavourless.

So much for the sashimi. We moved onto tempura, which tasted exactly like tempura batter. As Brits, it’s in our DNA to like battered fish, so we certainly weren’t complaining especially as the texture was so meaty, but again, the fugu itself tasted of nothing. Next came fugu soup. It at least had some punch: the standard pungent smell that comes with stewing any fish.

With a cold coming on fast, I at least appreciated the warm sake, which came with a little fugu fin in the bottom. As far as tea bags go, it was pretty strange.

After all that, the kind people at Nakakyu, trotted out 10 or 12 pieces of absolutely superb sushi (none of which were fugu) and we left happy, satisfied customers. But we couldn’t stop asking: what’s the big deal about fugu? Other the fact than it can kill you of course.











  1. Kim
    December 11, 2011

    When something is so hyped up to the extreme you can’t help but get sucked in with it, and then once you’ve experienced it for yourself you always seem let down. That’s what usually happens to me too!

    I won’t be trying Fugu when I go to Japan, especially since it’s expensive and tasteless, might as well freeze a bottle of water and pretend :P

  2. cdb
    December 12, 2011

    Ditto Kim. It’s just the thrill of having something that can kill you. I shan’t be trying it, either. But, all the fugu decorations are too cute!

  3. Noboru
    January 26, 2012