Fugu Cuisine (ふぐ料理)

Fugu cuisine' is the collective name for a variety of dishes that use pufferfish. Fugu cuisine was mainly developed in Western parts of Japan such as Yamaguchi Prefecture and Osaka Prefecture, and spread all over Japan after the Pacific War.
In the Kitakyushu area, Fukuoka Prefecture as well as in Yamaguchi Prefecture, which are considered the homes of pufferfish cooking, they are called 'Fuku dishes' without the sonant 'gu,' while in Osaka, they are also called 'Teppo dishes' or 'Tetsu dishes.'

As pufferfish have poison in their internal organs (it is widely known that tiger puffer, which are recognized as an upmarket fish, have tetrodotoxin inside while trunkfish have puff toxin) it is difficult to deal with the fish. In Japan, many municipalities oblige cooks to have a special license for the first stage of processing.

Names for Fugu Cuisine

In Yamaguchi Prefecture and the Kyushu region, fugu dishes are sometimes called 'fuku dishes' changing the sonant 'gu' to 'ku' (this is common in the tourism industry, but generally, it is called fugu.)
It is not clear how it started but there are the following theories.

The sound 'fugu' was thought to be ominous as it is reminiscent of other Japanese words, 'fuguu' (ill-fated) and 'fugu' (disabled). On the other hand, the sound 'fuku' was considered lucky as it is the same as 'fuku' (good fortune).

Another theory states that a pufferfish was wrapped in a piece of cloth and left to stand overnight before being cooked, which resulted in using the combination of Chinese characters meaning 'cloth' and 'long' that can be read as 'fuku.'

In the Kansai region, fugu is called 'teppo' (literally, a gun) or 'tetsu' for short, as the sounds for the Japanese words for "getting shot" and "being poisoned by pufferfish poison" are the same. Teppo' and 'Tetsu' were originally used as jargon. This is because it was forbidden to eat pufferfish after the Edo period.

The Best Season

The best season for pufferfish is said to be 'from aki no higan (autumnal equinox) to haru no higan (the spring equinox),' but the very best season is winter. It is partly because many fugu dishes are hot meals such as fugu nabe (hot pot) and also because it is the time when fully grown pufferfish come near the Japanese coast for spawning. In recent years, freezing and aquaculture technologies have developed, making it possible to eat fugu dishes all year around. Meanwhile, a number of old-style restaurants still stick to serving fugu dishes only in winter.

How To Process Pufferfish

Usually, after being killed on the spot, fish are filleted into three pieces using a method called 'sanmai oroshi.'
However, as pufferfish are poisonous, it is necessary to remove the poisonous parts before filleting. This process is called '身欠き' (migaki).
Also, pufferfish have an outer skin with spines and the process to remove these spines from the skin is called 'kawamuki.'

After the 身欠き (migaki) process, the fish are filleted into three pieces, which is sometimes called '磨き' (migaki).

Migaki
This is the process of removing the skin and poisonous parts (mainly internal organs such as the liver) of the pufferfish. Licensed puffer fish processing specialists (to be discussed later in this article) carry out this process. The work process and its order differ by specialists but the basic order is as follows.

Cut off the tip of the pufferfish mouth.

Cut off the fins such as dorsal and pectoral fins.

Skin the fish with a carving knife.

Take out the internal organs and wash the fish meat.

Skinning
While the skin of the pufferfish was valued as a delicacy, it was also used as a material for folk crafts and industrial arts. As this skinning process required expertise, only a limited number of professionals and processing factories were able to do it. However, in the 1990's, automated machines which were good for practical use were developed and work efficiency started to improve.

Fugu Sashimi

Fugu Sashimi is sashimi (sliced raw fish) of pufferfish meat. As pufferfish are called 'teppo' in the Kansai region, fugu sashimi is sometimes called 'tessa,' which is an abbreviation of 'teppo sashi' (sashimi).

One of the features (to be discussed later) of pufferfish is that it is fibrous. Because of this, it becomes too chewy and hard to eat when it is cut as thick as ordinary sashimi. To solve this, pufferfish meat is cut with a knife into such thin slices that people can see through them and this slicing is called 'usuzukuri' (literally, thin slicing). A special knife, 'fugu hiki bocho,' is used for this purpose.

Pufferfish meat used for fugu sashimi gets matured under cloth for a day or two after being killed. This process matures the fish meat.

The common display of fugu sashimi is 'beta mori' in which the fish meat slices are dished up evenly in a circle on a large round plate. There are more elaborate displays to please those who eat sashimi such as 'tsuru mori' (crane shaped display), 'kiku mori' (chrysanthemum shaped display), 'kujaku mori' (peacock shaped display) and 'botan mori' (peony shaped display), etc.

A common way to eat it is to pick up a piece with chopsticks and dip it into ponzu sauce. Condiments such as momijioroshi (whole daikon with a chile pepper notched inside and then grated,) etc. can be added to taste. Also, thinly sliced pufferfish skin which is parboiled and cooled in ice water is sometimes served with fugu sashimi.

Fugu nabe and fugu zosui

Fugu nabe is also called 'fugu chiri' as 'chiri' means a hot pot with sliced fish.
In the Kansai region, it is also called 'tecchiri.'

Fugu nabe is a hot pot dish in which pufferfish slices and bones are cooked together with vegetables in konbu (a kind of kelp used for Japanese soup stock) soup stock in an earthenware pot. As with fugu sashimi, ponzu sauce is common for this dish.

When the contents of the hot pot have been eaten, people usually salt the left over soup, add rice and bring it to boil, making fugu zosui (a porridge of pufferfish, rice and vegetables).

Fugu nabe in the Edo period was heavily salted and sweetened using a large amount of soy sauce and sugar for the stock.

Fried fugu
Fried fugu is a typical pufferfish dish. Chopped pufferfish meat is coated with flour and deep-fried in oil. This is usually served with ponzu sauce or salt.

Shirako (spermary) dishes

Shirako means the testes of male pufferfish. The best shirako are those taken from pufferfish caught from January to March, which is the spawning season of the fish; this is also the most expensive dish. It is usually served as a separate dish, including Shirako yaki (grilled shirako), Shirako age (deep fried shirako) and Shirako dofu (steamed and jellied shirako which look like tofu), etc.

Nikogori (jellied broth)
This is a dish in which pufferfish skin is cooked with vegetables and shiitake mushrooms and then refrigerated. Collagen in pufferfish skin jellifies the dish, setting it into a gelatin-like state.

Fugu zake
Although not strictly a dish, sake served with pufferfish parts inside is also widely known.
When dried pufferfish fins are roasted over the fire and put into hot sake, it is called 'fugu no hirezake.'
When pufferfish shirako, or testes, are used instead of fins, it is called 'fugu no shirako zake.'
Other than these, 'fugu no kotsuzake' which has toasted pufferfish bones is also known to be made.

Pickled Pufferfish Ovaries

In Hakusan City, Ishikawa Prefecture (former Mikawa cho, Ishikawa County, Ishikawa Prefecture), there is a local dish in which pufferfish ovaries are pickled in rice bran. The livers and ovaries of pufferfish contain a large amount of pufferfish poison; however, when they are soaked in salted water for one year and two to three years in rice bran, the poison deteriorates, decreasing the amount by so much that the fish become almost harmless to the human body. Through these processes, pickled pufferfish ovaries are appreciated as a delicacy. Pickled pufferfish ovaries and pufferfish ovary kasuzuke (pickling in sake lees) are dishes in which the deadly poisonous ovaries of Takifugu stictonotus, or gomafugu, are cooked. Permission to produce and sell these dishes is granted only in Ishikawa Prefecture.

Fukumeshi

This is a kind of ekiben (station lunch) sold at Shimonoseki Station. Fukumeshi made its debut in 1960 and is sold for a limited period of the year, which is from October to April the following year. In a round container which is modeled after a pufferfish, pufferfish tempura, pufferfish poached with soy sauce and sugar and edible wild plants are placed on top of fugumeshi, in which rice is cooked with pufferfish soup stock.

Tecchiri

In Fukuoka Prefecture, there is a home-cooked dish called 'tecchiri,' which is a pufferfish hot pot. Instead of pufferfish, pike conger is sometimes used in tecchiri.

Features of Pufferfish Meat

Fish meat can be classified into two types: fish with white flesh and fish with red flesh, and pufferfish belongs to the category with white flesh. White fish are high in protein and low in fat and, among white fish, pufferfish is known for having even less fat.

As pufferfish meat is fibrous and elastic, when it is sliced as thick as ordinary sashimi, people have difficulty chewing it. Because of this, fugu sashimi is sliced into thin slices.

It is said that with ordinary fish, it's best to eat them within 4 to 5 hours after they are killed as their meat becomes nicely hardened from postmortem rigidity. However, as pufferfish meat is originally elastic, it is said to be best eaten after 24 to 36 hours from death when their meat becomes softer after postmortem rigidity and umami components such as amino acid and inosinic acid increase.

Pufferfish Recognized as Edible

As of 2006, there are 22 kinds of pufferfish that people are allowed to eat, which is decided based on 'New Rules for Measures to Secure Sanitation Regarding Pufferfish,' an official notice from the then director-general of the Ministry of Health and Welfare released in 1983. The following is a list showing 22 kinds of pufferfish, as well as the parts that the notice stated people were allowed to eat. Columns containing O show the parts that were judged to be edible. It should be noted that the list contains only those fish which are caught along the coast of Japan, in the Sea of Japan, Bo Hai, Huang Hai (Yellow Sea) and the East China Sea.

It is a violation of the Food Sanitation Act Article 4 to sell pufferfish species and pufferfish parts other than the ones on the list, as well as pufferfish caught in different sea areas.

Pufferfish Processing Specialist License

When processing pufferfish, the process to separate the poisonous parts and edible parts of the fish is to be undertaken by a pufferfish processing specialist (which is also called shorishi (literally, processor) or hochoshi (literally, a man of a knife)) certified by prefectural governments. As this license is in accordance with prefectural ordinances, even when a person is licensed in one prefecture, he or she often finds the license invalid in another. As of 2005, the number of prefectures which have this kind of ordinance is 19, mainly in western Japan where the food culture of pufferfish cuisine has taken root.

Meanwhile, when cooking only pufferfish parts which have already been processed by a licensed cook, a license is not required.

Ancient Times

A number of pufferfish bones have been excavated from shell mounds from the Jomon Period located across Japan. From this fact, we can learn that pufferfish had been eaten since ancient times. Also, in China, there is a statement in Sengaikyo (oldest book on the geography of China) from the Qin dynasty, saying that if one eats pufferfish, he or she will die.
In "Honzowamyo," a book on medical herbs from the Heian Period, pufferfish appeared under the name of 'fuku.'

The Medieval Period and Early Modern Times

Among samurai who gathered in the Kyushu region for the Bunroku-Keicho War, deaths by pufferfish poisoning occurred one after another. Because of this, 'a ban on eating pufferfish' was issued. During the Edo period, many clans prohibited their samurai from eating pufferfish. In particular, there was a strict ban in the Choshu Domain, setting harsh punishments such as confiscating karoku (hereditary stipend) etc, in the case of violation. Also, Shoin YOSHIDA criticized eating pufferfish in a document. However, it was during the Edo period that a food culture of eating fish developed, and a book in the 17th century called "Ryori Monogatari' (tale of food) includes an explanation on how to cook 'fukuto jiru' (pufferfish soup). Also, Basho MATSUO and Issa KOBAYASHI composed haiku using pufferfish cuisine as a seasonal word. Thus, it is understood that pufferfish cuisine took root steadily.

Modern Times and Later

Even in the Meiji period, pufferfish poisoning did not die out. In the Tokyo Nichinichi Newspaper issued on August 14th, in 1872, there was a contribution saying that the practice of eating pufferfish should be banned.
In 1882, with an increase in pufferfish poisoning, the government released Ikeizai sokketsurei (the law concerning offence against police regulations) including a clause which stated that 'anyone who eats pufferfish will be sentenced to a prison term or a fine.'
However, in 1888, when Hirobumi ITO visited Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, he ate pufferfish and was so impressed that he approached the governor of Yamaguchi Prefecture, paving the way to lifting the ban on eating pufferfish.

In 1887, Professor Juntaro TAKAHASHI together with Associate Professor Yoshito INOKO started research on pufferfish poison. In 1889, they proved that pufferfish poison is not protein (enzyme)-like by the fact that it exists in the fish's body and is easy to dissolve in water, and made a chart showing the degrees of virulence. In Tokyo, the ban on selling pufferfish was lifted in 1892 on the condition that the internal organs were removed. In other regions, selling pufferfish was prohibited but it was mostly in name only.

When the Food Sanitation Act was established in 1947, prefectural governments started to enact ordinances regarding the sale of pufferfish. In 1949, Japan's first examination for the pufferfish processing specialist license took place in Tokyo. In 1983, 22 kinds of pufferfish and the parts that can be sold were announced in 'New Rules for Measures to Secure Sanitation Regarding Pufferfish,' an official notice from the then director-general of the Ministry of Health and Welfare.