Blowfish and the Samurai
I am a big fan of Japanese fugu (ふぐ – blowfish).
And while this wonderful fish goes by many names including fugu, blowfish, pufferfish, or even inflate-a-fish, chances are you will never hear anyone call it a safe snack~
Fugu, or blowfish as many call it in English, has always had my attention. Speaking more accurately, the fugu chefs have always had my attention!
Fugu has been enjoyed in Japan for over 20oo years, but contains a poison so dangerous that consumption of the fish was banned from the beginning of the 1600′s to the middle of the 1800′s. Even after the original ban was lifted, many areas of Japan still banned eating blowfish until the early 1900′s.
In 1958, a law was put into place which permitted only specially licensed chefs to prepare the potentially deadly swimmer for consumption and to this day, fugu is the only food that the emperor of Japan is not permitted to eat.
And getting a license to prepare fugu is not an easy task. The would-be fugu chefs must go through a very heavy 2-3 year apprenticeship and training, during the first part of which, they are not even permitted to touch the fish. Their lives revolve around anything and everything fugu. They are submitted to countless hours of study, followed by an inflexible and in-depth testing system which includes everything from a series of written tests to a practical fugu-preparation test where finally, they have to prepare and even eat the fugu. This test is so hard, that the pass-rate sits at a mere 35%.
Sound like a lot of work just to be able to cut and serve a fish? It is. And with good reason.
Let’s take a moment to imagine would it would be like if you were to ingest some of the blowfish’s poison…
Well, chances are that it would all start within 10 to 15 seconds. It would come on in a gradual build with something as simple as your tongue and mouth going numb. But this could quickly spread to your arms, legs, or worse. As the poison starts to spread, breathing becomes increasingly difficult as the toxin shuts down the muscles in your body. As you sit there grasping for any air that you can get, you realize that you are completely aware of everything that is happening to you. The poison hasn’t clouded your mind or made you delirious… and it won’t. This particular poison will leave your mind in a clear state from start to finish.
Your head is pounding, you can’t breathe, and you are additionally being tortured by the feeling that you want to throw up, but as most of the muscles in your body have been shut down at this point, you cannot.
You are rushed to the hospital. But there is no antidote for the fugu’s poison known as tetrodotoxin.
At this point, barely alive and just as barely conscious (if at all), your stomach is pumped and then quickly filled with activated charcoal in hopes of binding the poison. Finally you are put on life support, and your loved ones sit by and hope for the best…
Needless to say, this is not a pleasant experience for anyone involved.
While some people will tell you that fugu-related issues are very uncommon and that it is not something that you should be overly worried about, stories of people getting sick or even dying from eating fugu are far from uncommon here in Japan (although, thankfully have been on the decline).
In fact, I remember a story on the news back in 2007 or 2008 about a sushi chef who thought he might prepare some blowfish for his friends out of his home (without a license). This story did not end well…
And if you were to search the internet or news sites, stories about people being rushed to the hospital or dying after eating poison blowfish are surprisingly easy to find.
Here is an example:
11 people rushed to the hospital with blowfish poisoning
Simply put, blowfish can be a dangerous meal, especially if not prepared properly. And it is for exactly this reason that I have so much respect for these hard working chefs who have invested so much of their lives to the perfection of preparing this fish.
Knowing all this, would you trust an unlicensed chef to serve you blowfish?
The Japanese government would!
It would seem that the Japanese government does not share my overwhelming respect and admiration for these well-trained, and devoted fugu chefs. Rather, the government looks at prefectures and cities outside of Tokyo which have much more relaxed laws regarding blowfish, seeing less incidents, and cheaper prices, and decides, “Let’s try that in Tokyo!”. (Because I’m sure this has nothing to do with areas and cities outside of Tokyo having considerably lower populations, and less of a ‘fine dining’ culture…)
So, the Japanese government has decided that from October of 2012, a license will no longer be required in Tokyo to cut and serve the poisonous fugu. And for what? Hopes of blowfish becoming a cheap and popular izakaya-style snack that anyone can enjoy…
Now, let’s assume for a second that the Japanese government knows what they are doing here…
(because if history and recent events have taught us anything, it’s that the Japanese government is sure to make the right decisions for the good of the people! Right?…)
Even in the best-case scenario, imagining the government succeeds in lowering the prices, decreasing the number of incidents in Tokyo, and making blowfish a more easily enjoyable food for everyone, this is still a big ol’ middle finger to the many chefs who devoted their lives to the art of poetically navigating the gauntlet of the poisonous organs that make up the blowfish in order to present their trusting customers with a delicacy that they can eat in comfort.
And while I am confident that a great deal of fugu enthusiasts will remain faithful to their well-trained and highly respected chefs, how many new chefs are likely to go through the expensive, time (and life) consuming training and testing process to get a license that they don’t need? Would you go through the process of getting a car license if you didn’t need to?
And so Japan is killing yet another one of it’s beautiful arts by taking a food that was once seen as a special delicacy prepared only by highly-trained masters, and turning it into a cheap evening beer snack at the local snack bar or izakaya.
And people wonder why Japanese culture no longer has the appeal and pull on the world that it once did?
Just like the samurai, it would seem that these licensed fugu chefs who gave so much of themselves, are destined to become little more than legends. Stories of men that once were.
Through changing this one simple law, Japan loses yet another point of fascination for Japanese and non-Japanese alike.
Good job Japan.
For an interesting 2 part story on fugu, please check outDeep End Dining