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Why the Pufferfish Might Be the World's Most Dangerous Food Source

BY: Editors | Jul 9, 2015
Why the Pufferfish Might Be the World's Most Dangerous Food Source

In 1991, fugu—commonly known as pufferfish—swam its way into the cultural consciousness as a culinary delicacy when Homer Simpson scarfed down the potentially fatal dish. Needless to say, that appearance didn’t have audiences clamoring for a taste. Even by 2003, only 17 restaurants in the United States served fugu—12 of them in New York City. Despite being closer to Japan and its fugu suppliers, Sacramento sushi bars usually don’t serve the fish. 

Even though it’s sought after by pescatarian aficionados, the chances of finding a restaurant that serves pufferfish are about as high as actually dying from it (not high at all). There are a few unexpected outliers, like Origami Restaurant in Minneapolis, but even the best restaurants in Sacramento are notoriously fugu-shy. Here’s why:

Preparing it can be a matter of life and death.

A deadly chemical known as tetrodotoxin lurks in fugu’s inner organs—there's enough in one fish to kill 30 men—and skilled chefs must cut around the toxic viscera to extract the edible flesh without leaving behind a drop of venom. Japan holds its fugu chefs to a high standard, and every summer aspirants arrive at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo for the biggest test of their lives. While proctors look on, each examinee picks up his trusty fuguhiki (fugu knife) and begins to cut, clean, and fillet the fish, a task they must complete within 20 minutes.

However, fugu served in the US is considered extremely low risk.

It comes—frozen—from a single Japanese importer, and its safety is guaranteed by the Japanese government. Moreover, American chefs must be trained in fugu preparation to serve it, so only a select few restaurants serve the fish.

What does it taste like?

Apparently, its delicate flavor tastes a little like fluke.

So who is dying from this? Even Homer Simpson was unharmed.

In the real world, an average of two to three people per year pay the ultimate price for their gustatory brazenness—almost all of them fishermen eating their own catch. (The gritty details of those deaths can be found here, along with examples of other illegal or dangerous foods.) 

Despite the absence of fugu, the Sacramento sushi scene still has plenty to offer. Nishiki Sushi, for instance, has more than three dozen specialty rolls; Oshima Sushi offers an outdoor patio and the stylish Fugu Lounge, which doesn’t actually serve pufferfish.