The infamous fugu (blowfish) is a luxury food in Japan, one with a long history and an exciting reputation. Also known as fuku, this delicious fish has been part of the Japanese diet since ancient times, and is as popular today as it’s ever been; in fact, the Japanese consume some 10,000 tons of fugu annually. There are different varieties of fugu, but most notable among those approved for human consumption by the Japanese government is the tora, or tiger, fugu.
Tora fugu is renowned for its delicate and distinctive flavor—and for the deadly toxin tetrodotoxincontained in its liver and ovaries. Before being sold or served, the law requires that the poison be removed entirely, a procedure undertaken by specially licensed chefs.
Fugu has long been on the Japanese menu: fugu bones have been unearthed from shell mounds dating back some 2,500 years. During the late sixteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries, deaths by fugu poisoning were commonplace, and various laws were passed prohibiting its consumption, but it was eaten regardless.
It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that a safe and standardized preparation method was established. In1948, a certification system for fugu preparation was introduced in Osaka; this was later adopted by other prefectures in the country. Nowadays, if prepared by a specialized chef, there is no risk involved in eating fugu.
Fugu is normally served at specialty restaurants—some quite elite—which offer set menus priced from 5,000 yen to 30,000 yen (US$50.00-$300.00). Typical dishes include fugu-sashi, or tessa: thin, nearly transparent slices of raw fugu beautifully arranged on a plate. Fugu-sashi is dipped in ponzu-shoyu, soy sauce mixed with citrus juice, and garnished with momiji-oroshi (grated daikon mixed with red pepper) and green onion. Crunchy yubiki or teppi (boiled skin) is eaten the same way.
Fugu-chiri or tecchiri is a savory nabemono, one-pot dish (see Food Forum Vol.21, No.4) of fugu with tofu and vegetables that is simmered at the table and then eaten. This dish is accompanied by the same ponzu sauce, momiji-oroshi and green onion. Any remaining liquid is simmered with rice to make fugu zosui (rice porridge).
Other characteristic dishes include deep-fried fugu, whose crispy coating is savored together with the umami of succulent fugu meat. And to conclude this bill of fare, hire-zake—sake infused with the umami of roasted dried fugu fin—may be sipped in a final toast to this meal.