Big in Japan: The Subtle Art of Eating Blowfish

In the 18th century, the famous Japanese poet Yosa no Buson expressed his love for eating blowfish in this simple but elegant haiku:

I cannot see her tonight.
I have to give her up
So I will eat fugu.

Like the great poets of old and new, Buson is no different in that he yearned for a woman that was not his love. However, in the great tradition of finding comfort in food, he instead turns to fugu (??, blowfish) in order to mend his broken heart.

Indeed, there is perhaps no Japanese art as subtle and beautiful as that of eating blowfish. Some people swear by the tea ceremony. Others prefer Zen Buddhism. For me however, it’s blowfish, the deadliest of delicacies.

A famous Japanese story tells the tale of three men, who prepared a dish of fugu but were afraid to taste it out of fear of death. Driven to the point of despair, the wisest amongst them serves the dish to a beggar in order to test its potency. Later, when the men return to find that the beggar is still alive, they breathe a sigh of relief, and immediately dine on the fugu.

Like most Japanese folk tales, trickery and deceit are ultimately vanquished by wisdom and craft. This particular tale being no different, the beggar secretly hides away the stew hoping that the three men would eat it first. After seeing that they were alive and well, the wise beggar retires to the back streets, and eats his fugu with peace of mind.

This of course brings about the question: why exactly is fugu so deadly?

Blowfish packs a lethal punch in the form of tetrodotoxin, an extremely potent neurotoxin that paralyzes its victims while they are still conscious. To put things into perspective, this means that you are fully aware as your throat closes, your lungs deflate and drift slowly into death’s arms.

There is no known cure.

Of course, Japan is a country of safety and order, so thankfully the majority of deaths occur when untrained people catch and prepare the fish, accidentally poisoning themselves in the process. The most dangerous culprit is the liver, which is regarded as the tastiest morsel of the blowfish. If you’re lucky, the liver will contain only enough poison to numb the palette and raise the adrenaline. If you’re unlucky however, the liver will contain enough poison to kill you ten times over.

Of course, Japan is also a country of pride and honor, which is way blowfish liver (though illegal) is one of the most coveted of meals. In 1975, the famous Kabuki actor and ‘Living National Treasure’ Bandou Mitsugorou VIII requested four servings of liver from a fugu chef in Kyoto. Unable to refuse the request of someone of such an elevated stature, the chef served the livers to Bandou Mitsugorou VIII.

He died just minutes after – with his pride and honor intact of course.

Although illegal in Europe and all but a handful of restaurants in America, the subtle art of eating blowfish is still very much alive in modern Japan. Not surprisingly, eating fugu with a bunch of crazy companions is something that just sort of happens after spending too much time in Japan. It’s equal parts stupidity and peril, with a healthy dash of self-reflection and humility thrown in.

And yes, before you post comments regarding my culinary background, I have in fact eaten fugu, and I will most likely eat it again.

(In case you’re wondering, I did in fact survive with my nervous system intact).

Click here for Part II of the Subtle Art of Eating Blowfish.