I’m finally going to taste fugu. I’ve been wanting to taste it for a while, and today’s the day.
What? Ha ha, no! I’m not tasting fugu, the puffer fish. I’m tasting fugu, the word. These are word tasting notes, remember?
It’s not that I wouldn’t enjoy having fugu. It’s just that I’m not in Japan and I’m not going to spend a couple hundred bucks on sashimi.
I’m tempted to say “Also, I don’t want to die.” But these days you have a higher chance of being killed by undercooked turkey. Sure, half a century ago up to a hundred people a year died from eating fugu in Japan. Quite famously, in 1975 it killed one of Japan’s most famous kabuki actors, Bandō Mitsugorō VIII. But these days they’re much better at preparing it. Also, there are low-poison versions available. So the annual deaths are in the low single digits.
That still doesn’t sound inviting, though, does it? It sounds like, uh, bad marketing.
Except when it’s very good marketing. You narrow down your target market, sure. But you can charge a lot for the product. Fugu is a luxury food in Japan, and there are hundreds of restaurants that specialize in it – every one of them with a chef specially trained and licensed in the art of not killing you. (The people who die from eating fugu these days are pretty much always people who tried to prepare it themselves or had an untrained chef prepare it.)
So, you know, you almost certainly won’t die. But you have the idea that you could. It may even give you a little tingling in your tongue and lips as you eat it, just as a reminder that you’re eating trace amounts of an extremely potent neurotoxin. Fugu? Yolo! It’s like an FU to death (or, I suppose, as they say in Italy, fanculo!).
Anyway, the word fugu is fun in the mouth. It may not give your lips and tongue a light tingle, but it does feel like it might be risky. It also makes a good vocal gesture: a little puff of air through the teeth, and then blowing through a tunnel (“oo”) with a little echo knock at the back of the tongue. It could be good for blowing out a candle (out, out, brief candle)—slightly less so in Japanese, by the way, because they don’t round the lips for the vowel.
It’s even more fun in Japanese writing. Just as preparing fugu requires special knowledge, so does reading the kanji for it. Japanese has multiple writing systems used in parallel, and while the hiragana and katakana systems are phonetic (and fugu is most typically written with katakana, as フグ), the kanji system is borrowed from Chinese, and the relation between what you see and what you say has to be learned carefully. And the kanji for fugu is a good example of this.
In kanji, fugu is 河豚. Now, if you read those characters one at a time, you will say “ka buta,” which means ‘river pig’ (which is what the Chinese name of the fugu means; in the pinyin representation of Mandarin it’s hétún). If you say them as though they’re one word rather than two, you’ll say “katon,” which is the other way of saying the name of the puffer fish – if you call it that, you can reasonably expect to be understood. But normally, when you see 河豚, you say “fugu,” which is the usual Japanese name for the fish – it’s probably derived from the Japanese word for ‘blow’. It’s kind of like if in English we wrote aubergine but said it as “eggplant.”
So when you come to fugu, you have to be prepared. And when you come to fugu, you have to be prepared, and so does the fugu.
What happens if you catch a fugu unprepared? It’s a puffer fish, so it inflates and gets all spiky. It doesn’t do it in an instant, like in the cartoons; it takes several seconds. But it’s what makes these fish famous, even more than their toxicity. I’ve often said that if you say certain things to me or raise certain topics I will turn into a puffer fish; in Japanese, a normal sense of fugu is ‘someone with a quick temper’.
And puffing up is typically the last thing a fugu does, because the chef fishes it out of the tank live right before preparing it. It gets pulled out of the water and carried to a cutting board, so yeah, you can expect a reaction. And then, gradually, it de-puffs. (You might want to think it makes a sound like “fuu… guu…” as it does that, but no.)
As to what follows, well, there are plenty of videos on YouTube of chefs preparing fugu, if you feel like seeing someone cut up a very newly dead fish. You think eating fugu takes guts? Cutting up one takes lots of guts… out of the fish. And, by the way, they’re all extremely toxic. Don’t cut yourself. The liver is especially full of tetrodotoxin. You should never eat it. Not even if you’re Bandō Mitsugorō VIII and sure you’re immune to it. Because no, you’re not.
And then the flesh is sliced into many very thin slices with a very sharp knife and served on a plate in a pattern like flower petals. You dip them in ponzu (a sauce made with soy, citrus fruits, and a few other things) and you eat them raw. You can also have them in a hot pot. What does it taste like? According to my friend Daniel, who had it several times while living in Japan, “The closest I can think of is hirame (flounder). Very delicate. You savor this. It’s exquisite.”
Oh, and also there’s that tingling on the lips and tongue. Apparently you can’t count on that; if it’s been very carefully prepared, you might not get any noticeable amount. But why pay all that dough if not for at least a little taste of death, a memento mori?
If fugu hasn’t been carefully prepared, it’s still edible… but only once. It doesn’t kill you instantly; it takes several hours. Your whole body is gradually paralyzed, and you die of respiratory failure while fully conscious (not even in a state of fugue) and unable to communicate. That’s how that kabuki guy snuffed it. Oh, and there’s no antidote.
Yeah, yolo, You Only Live Once, but you know, I’d rather make it last as long as possible. And, come to think of it, my bank account too. Because if you’re gone fugu, you’re gone for good.