Despite the Russian roulette stereotype, people rarely fall ill in restaurants, chef Wakisaka Nobuyuki tells us.
Pufferfish preparation
Credit: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/Getty Images

If you’ve never heard about the dangers of eating pufferfish, they’re more than just urban legend. Although routinely served at restaurants across Japan, their 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 one of these chefs, Wakisaka Nobuyuki, who’s been cooking pufferfish—called fugu in Japanese—for over twenty years. At his Hagi Honjin Ryokan in seaside Hagi, Japan, the fish is used for sashimi, fugu chirifugu 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. (Amazingly, it looks white just like standard tofu.)

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, with fifteen pieces of sashimi running about 4,000 or 5,000 yen (37 to 47 dollars). At his restaurant, we enjoyed the wild-caught variety.

Credit: Gowri Chandra

Speaking through a translator, Nobuyuki tells us that tora fugu—a type of fugu, of which there are several in Japan—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 in restaurants, he tells us. It’s more 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 one’s hands to one’s 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.