How to Safely Eat Pufferfish, According to a Chef Who Cooks It

Despite the Russian roulette stereotype, people rarely fall ill from eating pufferfish in restaurants, chef Wakisaka Nobuyuki tells us.

Pufferfish preparation
Photo: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/Getty Images

If you've never heard about the danger of eating pufferfish, it's more than just urban legend. Although the fish is routinely served at restaurants across Japan, its poison is so potent that chefs have to take a national written and practical examination just to be able to cook it.

We spoke with chef Wakisaka Nobuyuki, who's been cooking pufferfish (called fugu in Japanese) for more than 20 years. At his Hagi Honjin Ryokan in seaside Hagi, Japan, the fish is used for fugu chiri — a sashimi hotpot not unlike shabu shabu — and even as garnish for sake. The charred fin, a tiny blackened thing, is steeped in a steaming hot mug of sake, which is then lit on fire tableside. The fumes intensify the drinking experience, preserved by keeping a lid on the drink throughout the meal. The resulting concoction tastes ever so slightly of ocean, and makes the sake savory, almost broth-like. (Make no mistake, however, it will knock you out.) It's called hire sake, or huku hire sake in local dialect — fugu is called huku here. Fugu roe is also used to make tofu, resulting in a denser, starchier tofu than one might normally expect.

Hagi Honjin Ryokan is located in the Yamaguchi prefecture, one of three Japanese prefectures known for its fugu production, with Osaka and Ōita being the other two. While 95% of the country's fugu is actually farmed, a scant 5% is wild-caught. And the price tag will usually tell you which is which. Wild-caught fugu is four to five times more expensive, Nobuyuki estimates. At his restaurant, we enjoyed the wild-caught variety.

Gowri Chandra

Speaking through a translator, Nobuyuki tells us that the tora fugu species is actually more prolific in the summertime, but its poisons are higher then, so winter is ideal fugu season.

Despite the Russian roulette stereotype, people rarely fall ill from eating pufferfish in restaurants, he says. Problems usually stem from amateurs who catch the fish and think they can cook it at home. They make the mistake of frying up the liver, for example, which is highly toxic — as are the ovaries, brain, eyes, and intestines — and the swift and immediate punishment is neural paralysis. Not to fear for chefs, however. Just handling these toxic parts does not pose a health threat, as long as one doesn't touch their hands to their mouth after, ingesting the fish.

At Hagi Honjin Ryokan, an onsen ryokan — a hot springs inn of the kind that dots the country, epitomizing its culture of rustic communal baths — a hot steaming pot of fugu chiri is the perfect conclusion to a drizzly day in the mountains. The fish is meaty and dense; the sashimi perfectly robust, not of the fatty sort that melts in your mouth. It almost has a bite, a bounce. It's utterly pleasurable, especially when paired with locally made tamari shoyu.

If you find yourself in Japan with the desire to try it for yourself, head to Yamaguchi where some of the best is to be had, under chef Nobuyuki's expert care.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles