A plate of fugu sashimi arranged into a beautiful chrysanthemum

What is Fugu? Japan's Favorite Poisonous Fish

Japan has plenty of foods that seem to be fun for adventurous foodies. For some, it’s yakiniku (Japanese barbecue), with its unique cuts of beef and pork. For others, the adventure may be hakozushi (boxed sushi) with its unique take on sushi. However, for many daring foodies, fugu (puffer fish) is the ultimate test of courage.

Read on to learn about this poisonous fish, why it’s safe to eat, and all of the fun ways people eat it.

What is Fugu?

A puffer fish swims through the water
Some people say that this fish looks really cute. I don't agree, but that's just me. Image via Unsplash

It goes by many names—puffer fish, blowfish and globefish—but in Japan, people call it ‘fugu’. It has the status of a luxury food for several reasons, including its preparation and skill level of the chefs. This fish is famous for its delicious flavor, nutritional value, and of course, its poison (more on that later).

People enjoy fugu year-round but is most popular in winter, when puffer fish gets fatter to survive the cold. This also means that winter is when this fish is the most expensive.

Fugu is high in protein, low-calorie and high in nutrients, like vitamins and minerals. Many people eat it for beauty and health, especially with its high amount of both collagen and fiber. Plus, in Yamaguchi Prefecture’s Shimonoseki City, fugu is called ‘fuku.’ Fuku can mean ‘good luck’ or ‘fortune’, so some people eat puffer fish to bring about good luck.

As far as the puffer fish’s flavor profile, fugu is white in color and has a refreshing and light taste. There’s also a light sweetness and nice umami with a firm texture. Some people also mention a tingling sensation on the tongue from the poison in the fish, but this may depend on what exactly you eat at fugu shops.

Is Fugu Safe to Eat?

A boiling hotpot of fugu meat, mushroom, parsley, onion and other veggies
Well, it wasn't safe to eat, then how could we make delicious puffer fish hotpot? Image via Instagram (@junko.rmn9955)

The answer to this question is “Yes*”, with the asterisk being very important. Wild fugu is very poisonous, containing high amounts of tetrodotoxin, a highly poisonous substance that is 1000 times stronger than potassium cyanide and a few hundred times stronger than arsenic. Tetrodotoxin is found in quite a few aquatic species, like some octopuses, crabs, other shellfish and frogs.

This is because puffer fish consumes a certain bacteria that causes the liver, ovaries, eyes, skin and more to build up this poison. However, this fact has led to many farmers producing poison-free fugu by keeping them from eating the bacteria that leads to tetrodotoxin. These days, a large amount of fugu is farm-raised and totally safe for consumption.

However, that doesn't mean that wild fugu isn’t still popular. If you want to eat wild puffer fish safely, you can relax thanks to the Japanese government. Japan requires that restaurants can only serve puffer fish if they are government-certified fugu handlers. Getting certified can take a couple of years, meaning that puffer fish chefs are well-acquainted with fugu.

A hand slices thin pieces of fugu on a counter
Handlers require a lot of knowledge and precision to ensure your safety. Image via Unsplash

Handlers remove the poisonous parts of the fish with a special knife and use a lot of water to wash away any blood from the meat itself. Many parts are thrown away, leaving only what is edible. It takes a lot of time and effort, adding to the food’s luxury status.

Last, the disposed parts legally have to be put in a special lockable container and either burned or disposed of in a way that won’t create a health risk. Handlers are also legally not allowed to sell the most poisonous parts of the fish, especially the liver.

Thanks to these strict laws, incidents at restaurants are actually extremely rare. Nowadays, puffer fish incidents happen due to normal folks catching and eating the fish without proper preparation.

For example, the number of fugu is increasing in Hokkaido due to rising sea temperatures. So, casual fishermen are catching tora fugu, the most poisonous of the puffer fish, and eating it without proper prep.

How to Feast on Fugu

Fugu can be eaten in plenty of tasty ways. Here are just a few ways that you can enjoy the taste of puffer fish.


A plate of thinly sliced puffer fish on a blue plate with veggies and boiled puffer fish on top
Tessa is sometimes served with pieces of boiled puffer fish too. Image via Instagram (@happy.mh_777)

Tessa is a simple yet delicious fugu sashimi. To make this dish, the handler will cut it into thin, transparent slices and serve the slices on a beautiful plate. They often arrange the sashimi into a beautiful flower—usually a chrysanthemum or peony—creating a colorful work of sashimi art.

The right way to eat tessa is to dip it in ponzu (a citrus soy sauce mix) and eat it with toppings like green onions, daikon radish, and chili peppers.


You can also enjoy puffer fish as a hotpot dish called tecchiri or fugunabe. Hotpot makes the fugu a little softer while bringing out its umami flavor. This flavor soaks into the soup stock as it cooks, creating a savory broth. In classic hotpot fashion, rice is added at the end to create a delicious rice gruel that’s full of flavor.

Fugu no Karaage

Several pieces of golden fried fugu sit on a plate
Based on the shop's technique, this dish's appearance can range from fish and chips to southern fish fry in looks. Image via Instagram (@naopang)

While karaage usually refers to fried chicken thigh, this is a tasty dish of battered and deep-fried fugu meat (sometimes bone-in). This dish creates a beautiful balance of a crispy outside and juicy meat inside.

Fugu Roe

The soft roe of fugu can be eaten as well. It’s popular for its natural creaminess and thickness. Most shops grill it before serving. Ishikawa Prefecture also has a specialty of fugu roe that is pickled and then fermented in rice bran.

Only 10 businesses, all in Ishikawa Prefecture, are licensed to sell this style because it requires a special technique—pickling the roe for three years. This removes the poison, but we still don’t fully understand how pickling removes the poison—only that it does.

A bowl of puffer fish roe in a brown soup on a small plate
Fugu roe can be eaten alone, but you can also find it in soups or deep-fried as well. Image via Instagram (@yunyun_1112)


You can also drink fugu in the form of hirezake, or fin sake. The fins (fugu-hire) are dried and lightly roasted before being put into sake (Japanese rice wine). When done right, it adds a bit of smokiness and umami to the sake.

Honoroable Mentions

While the others are the most popular, there are more options for consuming puffer fish. For example, grilled fugu is common in the summer thanks to its high protein, low-calorie nature.

Meanwhile, some people enjoy the taste of savory jellied puffer fish broth at restaurants. Based on the shop, you may also see dishes that serve the skin, despite its potential poison. Boiled is also a tasty option for this fish.

A set of fugu foods including roe, sashimi, hotpot and jellied broth
Many places offer fugu sets that can be expensive but are the best way to try it all. Image via Instagram (@hotelgajoentokyo)

History of Fugu in Japan

Fugu has been eaten in Japan in different ways since even before 4th century BC during the Jomon period (14,000~300 BC). Evidence of this comes from buried trash piles containing pufferfish bones.

Fugu was banned in the 1600s after a number of soldiers suffered from fugu poisoning during the wars of the time. The ban was lifted but then reenacted during the Meiji Era (1867-1912).

This ban was lifted again in the 19th century in Yamaguchi Prefecture, where the prime minister ate the dish and fell in love with it. The repeal slowly spread across Japan, but rumors say that the emperor of Japan is still banned from eating fugu.

After the repeal, the liver was popular as the most tasty part of the fish. However, it is also the most poisonous, leading to the government banning its sale as well.

A cup of sake with grilled fish fins inside and a cup topper hanging off the side
Charred fins in sake may sound weird, but it's a savory experience similar to the use of tomato juice in cocktails. Image via Instagram (@naopang)

Fugu if a fun and tasty experience for the most adventurous of foodies, and the Japanese government has made it so you can safely enjoy all of the wonderful ways to cook this fish.

Would you try a taste of this poisonous fish? If so, what puffer fish dishes would you like to try? Let us know in the comments!

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