Fugu Are Poisonous, But You Can Enjoy Their Great Taste Safely in Japan

   Fugu, or puffer fish, are luxury fish that are used as ingredients in food eaten all year round in Japan. These fish are actually poisonous, and they can only be served at restaurants in Japan where a qualified fugu handler works. Because of this system managed in general by the Japanese government, you can rest assured as you eat fugu. This article describes the delicious taste, the safety measures, and the appeal of fugu, a type of fish that Japanese people love.

People Want to Eat It, even if It Is Poisonous!! The Food Culture and History of Fugu in Japan

   There are about 350 types of puffer fish around the world, and about 35 types of fugu in the seas around Japan. Many types of fugu are highly poisonous. The poison called tetrodotoxin in fugu is said to be 1,000 times stronger than potassium cyanide. The poisonous areas vary depending on the type of fugu, so it is extremely dangerous. For this reason, there are qualified fugu handlers who have the right skills and knowledge.
   There are about 22 types of fugu used for food in Japan. Fugu are high in protein and low in calories, and they have many nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, making them a tasty food that is good for beauty and health. In Japan, people say that someone “wants to eat fugu but does not want to lose their life” (“Fugu wa kuitashi inochi wa oshishi” in Japanese) when referring to someone who is hesitating about taking action for something that is dangerous.

The Torafugu or tiger puffer, known as the king of fugu

   Japan is an island surrounded by the sea, and people in the country used creative methods to prepare and eat fugu since ancient times, even earlier than the 4th century BC. There were many wars within Japan around the 17th century AD. Many soldiers suffered from fugu poisoning at this time, and so a decree was issued to ban people from eating fugu. At the end of the 19th century, Western culture spread across Japan, the ban on eating fugu was removed in Yamaguchi Prefecture, owing to action from Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito. The ban was taken away across Japan, bit by bit. This demonstrates how fugu have been an appealing type of food for Japanese people since ancient times.

The Reason Why You Can Eat Fugu Safely in Japan

   Fugu are recognized as poisonous fish around the world, but you can eat them safely and with peace of mind in Japan. This is because the Japanese Government manages a system for training fugu handlers. There is a legal obligation where only qualified fugu handlers can serve fugu meals, so you can safely eat dishes with fugu at restaurants in Japan.
   In the process of preparing fugu, handlers remove the parts with poison in them, and they use a lot of water to wash away the blood from the meat. More parts are disposed of than the edible parts overall, and it takes time and effort to cut up the meat. These are two more reasons why fugu are seen as a luxury type of fish. After the poison is removed, handlers cut the meat into thin slices with a knife, and serve these slices on a plate. This dish is called “Tessa,” or fugu sashimi. This dish looks beautiful like a flower, and you can see the pattern on the plate through the meat. Fugu have a lot of collagen, and are full of fiber. You can enjoy their delicious taste through the creative preparation methods of fugu handlers.

Cutting fugu meat with a knife

Serving fugu meat on a large plate

Eating “Tessa” that was served in a beautiful way

A fugu cooking experience for people from outside Japan, held by fugu handler Takashi Suda
Photo provided by the All Nippon Fugu (Pufferfish) Association

   Once the poisonous parts of the fugu are removed during the preparation process, there is a legal obligation to keep them in a special lockable storage container and burn them, or dispose of them in another way that will not result in danger to health. The Japanese government manages and restricts the handling of fugu, and it imposes severe punishments through regulations on fugu that are based on the Food Sanitation Act.

Delicious Fugu Dishes in Japan

   Sliced fugu is white in color and has a refreshing, light taste. When served as sashimi, it has a firm texture and has a sweet flavor that fills your mouth as you chew it. For relish, you eat it dipped in Ponzu (soy sauce blended with citrus juice) together with seasonings like chopped young green onions, grated daikon radish, and chili peppers. It can also be served in other ways, such as a hotpot where you can enjoy the soft meat, in a seasoned rice porridge letting you taste the umami flavor in the broth, or deep-fried with a crispy batter outside and juicy meat inside. You eat the skin as well; it is not thrown away. The skin is gelatinous and is tasty with a firm and crunchy texture. It is boiled briefly and dipped in Ponzu before eating.

Dipping fugu sashimi in Ponzu

A fugu hotpot called “Tecchiri

Deep-fried fugu

Lightly boiled fugu skin

   Fugu soft roe has a thick and creamy flavor. It is eaten grilled or as tempura. One dish made with fugu roe pickled and fermented in rice bran is salty and has a strong umami taste. This dish can only be produced by about 10 businesses that have received a permit from Ishikawa Prefecture. The egg sacs of the fish are pickled for three years to remove the poison before eating. However, the reason why this process removes the poison has not been completely clarified, even in the modern day.

Grilled fugu soft roe

Fugu roe pickled and fermented in rice bran

   Fugu-hire (fugu fins) are dried, lightly roasted, and then put in sake to create Hirezake (fin sake). This lets people enjoy the flavor produced by fugu broth as they drink.

Roasting Fugu-hire


   In Shimonoseki City, Yamaguchi Prefecture, people call fugu by a different name, “Fuku,” based on another word in Japanese, and they treat this fish as a symbol of good luck. The word Fuku in Japanese literally means “fortune.” Japanese people love fugu. These fish might have poison, but they are delicious and are seen to bring good luck. In Japan, fugu handlers safely process the fish and remove their poison before serving them. Why not try eating Japanese fugu dishes yourself?