2005_11_food_fugu.jpgIn today's Thrillist, Gothamist saw Azusa of Japan recommended as "the most affordable, authentic fugu experience around." Considering how expensive fugu meals can cost (up to $200) and Azusa's cheap drink prices ($4.75 for a martini!!), we really cannot disagree with that statement.

Fugu is a shortening of a Japanese term takifugu, referring to a genus of pufferfish, as well as the seafood dishes prepared from such pufferfish. Fugu is considered a delicacy in Japan, and is not easy to find stateside; our research found a list, nearly 3 years old, of only 17 restaurants in the US that serve fugu. (We looked up a few of the New York restaurants, and found at least one that may not still exist) According to Thrillist, you must have a special license to prepare and serve fugu; we verified that this is indeed true in at least Japan, where only a few restaurants in each city serve fugu. Most foodies enjoy the fugu experience, although some have argued that the fish has a rather bland flavor.

Why the fuss about fugu? Well, because it can kill you.

Fugu is loaded with tetrodotoxin, an especially potent neurotoxin, in both its internal organs and in its skin. Scientists estimate that the average pufferfish contains enough tetrodotoxin to kill thirty human adults. Most of the tetrodotoxin in a pufferfish is concentrated in the liver and a few other easily removable organs, so there are many parts of the fish that can be served safely by a trained chef.

Its appeal as seafood, though, is about anything but safety. While the paper-thin sashimi and the sake-fried fins are considered exceptional dishes, its popularity seems mostly due to the fact that people want to brag that they've eaten a deadly poisonous fish. And some gourmands take it one step further: they seek fugu that contains a small amount of the poison so that it will provide a tingling sensation on the lips and tongue as it is eaten. That lip tingling sensation can be an accompaniment to a safe dose of tetrodotoxin - or it can be the initial symptoms of a fatal dose, leading to paralysis and asphyxiation! Did we mention that there's no antidote to the poison?

Even crazier, some go out of their way to flout the laws and ask for takifugu liver, which is typically prohibited from being served! The livers are so poisonous that they are disposed of as hazardous waste in Japan! One man reluctantly tried a piece of unsafe takifugu liver, and barely lived to tell the story. And although there are incredibly strict rules dictating the handling and preparation of these deadly fish, it's not impossible for a slip-up to happen on the way to your plate.

Aside from the tales of death from liver (we'd previously feared that our own livers would be the ones that killed us), we're assured by many sources that restaurant-served fugu is incredibly safe, and worth the experience. Anthony Bourdain gave fugu a try in Japan, and recounted the experience in his book A Cook's Tour. About.com has an incredibly helpful article about fugu, and you can find more on Wikipedia as well.

Try it for yourself... and, ummmm, let us know how it went. (We're sticking to the sea bass for now.)

Guest columnist Brian Van.