Playing Roulette

Eating Deadly Fugu in Osaka, Japan

What's it like to stare down death and then eat it?

By Bill Wiatrak June 10, 2019

Would you eat sashimi that could paralyze or kill you?

Anthony Bourdain said this about Japanese food: “There’s a level of perfectionism, attention to detail, quality ingredients, and tradition and technique unlike anywhere else.”

I have to agree. The food in Japan is epic. A simple trip to the grocery store uncovers aisle after aisle of gastronomic treasures. Even a simple bento box in a train station looks like it was handcrafted by a designer. I soon discovered it would take months to scratch the surface of understanding the plethora of tastes, so what do you do if you only have 10 days? Eat blowfish, for one.

When I first heard the myths about this poisonous fish, I was intrigued. I didn’t imagine that I’d ever be at a restaurant that served it, or that I could afford such a meal. After all, isn’t it true that the Japanese pay thousands of dollars to dine upon this delicacy? 

A papier-mâché blowfish hangs over Zuboraya Shinsekai in Osaka.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

I’ve had other strange delicacies—rotten shark in Iceland, ant eggs in Mexico, cobra in China, piranha in Colombia, and fruit bat in the Seychelles. Menu items like these are arguably challenging: They either taste really bad, or they bite you before you bite them. Osaka is a city full of delicacies, and blowfish— fugu—isn’t found down some hidden back alley, as one might suspect. In fact, the giant 3-D mammoth-sized pufferfish dangles above one Dotombori-area restaurant like an unreachable piñata. The restaurant is called Zuboraya Sheinsekai and it's a popular choice for those who want to sample fugu.

In the sea, this unassuming fish appears to be a normal creature until threatened. Then it expands its body with air and spikes appear, making it a seemingly inedible choice for would-be attackers. It also has glands full of neurotoxins that will kill a human if consumed. Which is exactly the reason it’s become such a food challenge. Trained chefs spend years learning how to remove the poisonous layers between the edible flesh. If they make a mistake, the patron will be poisoned. Imagine it as sort of a seafood Russian roulette. 

The menu at Zuboraya was bright and colorful, the picture of the bristling mascot looked almost cartoonish and non-threatening. A couple sat down and ordered something in Japanese. They looked like they’d been here before and they were still ... alive. That’s a good thing, right? 

When in doubt, drink sake. We did. Then we had some more.

The restaurant’s claim to fame is that they serve the entire blowfish as sashimi, fried fish, and then as a soup. We decided to split the dish and order more sake.

As soon as I placed the order and paid up front I was reminded of  a skydiving trip I took for my 40th birthday. Signing up was easy. Driving to the airport? A piece of cake. Putting on the gear wasn’t even really that scary. But once the plane ascended and I stared out at an open door of sky, clouds and possible death, things became incredibly real. I'd changed my mind, but such things aren’t allowed after you’ve already paid. There’s a reason you pay first.

No other sit-down restaurant in Japan had required payment up front, except this one. A really confident restaurant would have you pay later, maybe even extend credit. Nope. No one is slicing your fugu until the cash is in the till.

Fried fugu.

Image: Jennie Timar

While we waited, I Googled fugu one more time. I discovered that the neurotoxin in the fish is 1,000 times the strength of cyanide and can instantly paralyze a person. Did I really trust this place? It sounds funny when you talk about it, but how disappointed would my mom be if she saw me commit sushi-suicide on Facebook Live?

The sashimi was off-white, the translucent layers arranged like petals. As a handful of nocturnal Houston friends watched on Facebook with curiosity, I lowered the raw fugu into my mouth. I chewed slowly, wondering what it would feel like if I was suddenly paralyzed. The meat was a little chewy, not the finest sashimi I’ve ever put in my mouth. Hamachi (yellowtail) is still my favorite. 

It didn’t have a lot of flavor, but maybe it’s an acquired taste. The soup wasn’t particularly exciting, but it was interesting to try different preparations of the fish. The fried blowfish was the most palatable. But frying can make almost anything taste good. And then we were done. I had eaten deadly fugu and I was still alive.

Did I mention there was blowfish sake? Even their little fins were being served with rice wine, so it was time for a celebratory drink. A toast to life.

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