Fugu: The Deadliest Sushi


I'll be the first to admit that I eat my fair share of things that really aren't good for me, even if my body doesn't always approve. Because cheese.

But at what point does the level of risk outweigh the deliciousness? Sure with each artery clogging cheeseburger we're pushing ourselves one step closer to the a heart attack. But what if the risk is a little more binary? You could be absolutely fine! Or paralysis could set in and you could lose all ability to breathe and die

What's the acceptable ratio of risk? 1/10? 1/100? 1/5000?

If you had a 99% chance of being fine, would it be worth it?

What am I talking about?

Episode: File 0022: Be Our Guest (live)

Release Date: April 2 2021

Researched and presented by Cayla

Commonly known as Fugu in Japan, the pufferfish is the deadly delicacy of which I speak. This name refers to a handful of species among the genus Takifugu or a porcupinefish of the genus Diodon

Since the lethality of this dish is directly tied to its preparation, restaurant preparation is very strictly controlled by law in Japan and in several other countries like Korea and China. Licensing often takes three or more years of rigorous training, a training that only 35% of applicants pass

The final examinations include: a written test, a fish identification test and lastly, a practical test where the chef must prepare and eat the fish

Tetrodotoxin is the poison that these fish carry in their skin, liver, ovaries and eyes. This poison can be found in other species such as the blue ringed octopus, rough skinned newts and moon snails

The key to preparation is the careful removal of these toxic parts. This poison isn't something that you can't just cook out of the fish, though if the ovaries are pickled for 3 years they can then become safe to eat

Typically fugu is served as sashimi, but one of the tastiest parts is supposedly the liver, which is also the most toxic. Go figure. Serving this organ became banned in restaurants in 1984, but that doesn't stop the appeal

We have evidence that the Japanese have been playing fish roulette for over 2,300 years. But its consumption wasn't always legal. There are a handful of periods where the fish was banned, but somehow it always made it back into the public's good graces.

For the public anyways, for the Emperor of Japan, they're forbidden by law from eating the fish for their own safety

As the average citizen of Japan, you can't just roll up to the fish market and buy a whole pufferfish, even though they are there. You must have a license to purchase the whole or live fish, but many markets have began to sell fugu that's already been prepared to the public.


Most commonly fugu is prepared as sashimi. Chefs use incredibly thin blades to cut the fugu into translucent slices, a technique known as Usuzukuri

The roe of the blowfish is incredibly popular where it is often grilled and served with salt

The meat is also deep friend and smoked, some infused with sake

I'm Poisoned, Now What?

Well you're fucked. Ok, well not entirely

First of all, if you are actually poisoned, call 911, don't continue reading this article. For the hypothetical situation, carry on!

It's thought that tetrodotoxin is 10,000x more lethal than cyanide 

You likely won't know that you have been poisoned until the symptoms set in. Your meal will probably look and taste exactly how you expected it to

But usually within 30 minutes you will begin to experience symptoms, though it's possible the symptoms may be delayed a couple hours, but this is quite rare. If you have consumed a lethal dose of the toxin, you'll know in 17 minutes

You'll begin to feel tingling and numbness in your tongue and lips and that sensation will spread through out your body, slowly paralyzing your muscles.

You may experience headaches, sweating, hypersalivation, nausea even seizures. But the deadly aspect of this reaction is the respiratory distress that will set in. It'll become more and more difficult to breathe. All while you stay awake

Oh and there's no known antidote

Your best chance at recovery is to get to a hospital as soon as you can. There the doctors will empty your stomach, fill you with charcoal to bond with the toxin and set you up on life support. At which point you pray that they can keep your body functioning long enough for the poison to be metabolized or excreted from your body

All in all, it's not a great way to go

This sounds deadly, people must die all the time!

Between the years 1996 and 2006 the Tokyo Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health have statistics that indicate 20-44 incidents of fugu poisoning, some impacting multiple diners.

34-64 people were hospitalized, 0-6 died per year, with an average fatality rate of 6.8%.

Of the 23 incidents reported in Tokyo between 1993-2006, only 1 took place at a restaurant, the others involved people catching and eating the fish.

Poisonings through amateur preparation can result from misidentification, improper preparation and it's even suspected that it may be used in suicide attempts

All of this is a drastic improvement over earlier years. Poisonings peaked in 1958, with 176 people dying in that year alone

One of the most famous victims was a Kabuki actor, Bando Mtisgoro VIII who in 1975 died after eat four servings of puffer liver, claiming to be able to resist the poison, but died several hours later in his hotel

In Thailand between the years 2004-2007 15 people died and 115 were taking to the hospital due to unscrupulous fish sellers selling puffer meat disguised as salmon


There is a Japanese story that 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.

The Future of Fugu

If this hasn't deterred you dreams of tasting this supposedly delicious fish, but you're really not sure about the risk of dying, there's good news

Researchers have determined that the develop of the neurotoxin in pufferfish is due to their consumption of bacteria made of the stuff. So farm raised pufferfish that are kept from this bacteria are completely non toxic! The less-deadly version has began to grow in popularity in Japan, supposed to taste identical to the deadly version

And toxicologists are working on developing an antidote