Fugu is the Japanese word for pufferfish and the dish prepared from it, normally species of genus Takifugu, Lagocephalus, or Sphoeroides, or porcupinefish of the genus Diodon. Fugu can be lethally poisonous due to its tetrodotoxin; therefore, it must be carefully prepared to remove toxic parts and to avoid contaminating the meat.
Fugu contains lethal amounts of the poison tetrodotoxin in its organs, especially the liver, the ovaries, and the eyes whereas skin is usually non-poisonous. The poison, a sodium channel blocker, paralyzes the muscles while the victim stays fully conscious. The victim is unable to breathe, and eventually dies from asphyxiation. There is no known antidote. The standard treatment is to support the respiratory and circulatory systems until the poison is metabolized and excreted by the victim's body.
Advances in research and aquaculture have allowed some farmers to mass-produce safe fugu. Researchers surmised that fugu's tetrodotoxin came from eating other animals that held tetrodotoxin-laden bacteria and that the fish develops immunity over time. Many farmers now produce 'poison-free' fugu by keeping the fugu away from the bacteria. Usuki, a town in Ōita Prefecture, has become known for selling non-poisonous fugu.
The inhabitants of Japan have eaten fugu for centuries. Fugu bones have been found in several shell middens, called kaizuka, from the Jōmon period that date back more than 2,300 years. The Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1868) prohibited the consumption of fugu in Edo and its area of influence. It became common again as the power of the shogunate weakened. In western regions of Japan, where the government's influence was weaker and fugu was easier to get, various cooking methods were developed to safely eat them. During the Meiji Era (1867–1912), fugu was again banned in many areas. Fugu is also the only food the Emperor of Japan is forbidden to eat, for his safety.
Fugu was and is one of the favorite dishes in China where its name was mentioned in the literature as early as circa 400BC. Fugu comes as the first in the three most delicious fish from The Yangtze river.
A dish of fugu can easily cost ¥5,000 (approx. US$50), but it can be found for as little as ¥2,000 (approx. US$20), and a full-course fugu meal (usually eight servings) can cost ¥10,000–20,000 (approx. US$100–200) or more. The expense encourages chefs to slice the fish very carefully to obtain the largest possible amount of meat. The special knife, called fugu hiki, is usually stored separately from other knives.
In the Kansai region, the slang word teppō, (鉄砲) meaning rifle or gun, is used for the fish. This is a play of words on the verb ataru (当たる), which can mean to be poisoned or shot. In Shimonoseki region, the ancient pronunciation fuku is more common instead of the modern fugu.The former is also a homonym good fortune whereas the latter is one for disabled. The Tsukiji fish market fugu association holds a service each year at the height of the fugu season, releasing hundreds of caught fugu into the Sumida River. A similar ceremony is also held at another large market in Shimonoseki.
A rakugo, or humorous short story, tells of three men who prepared a fugu stew but were unsure whether it was safe to eat. To test the stew, they gave some to a beggar. When it did not seem to do him any harm, they ate the stew. Later, they met the beggar again and were delighted to see that he was still in good health. After that encounter, the beggar, who had hidden the stew instead of eating it, knew that it was safe and he could eat it. The three men had been fooled by the wise beggar.
Lanterns can be made from the bodies of preserved fugu. These are occasionally seen outside of fugu restaurants, as children's toys, as folk art, or as souvenirs. Fugu skin is also made into everyday objects like wallets or waterproof boxes.
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