The puffer, also known as globefish, blowfish, swellfish, or balloon fish, is a common but somewhat mysterious creature of tropical seas. It is named for its ability to blow up to a sphere two or three times its normal size. When frightened, annoyed, or excited, it will gulp water or air into a sac on its belly, thereby intimidating rivals and discouraging predators.

Because its body must be free of restraints, the puffer is lacking in rib and pelvic bones and does not present the streamlined body style expected of a fish. Classified among the tetraodonts (four—toothed), the puffer is equipped with four teeth fused into a structure like a parrot's beak. The beak is useful for tearing apart crabs, mollusks, corals, urchins, and starfish, but it does nothing to enhance the appearance of the ungainly, misshapen puffer. Moreover, many of the hundred species are quite lethal.

In Japan, however, the puffer, the honorable fugu, is considered to be the ultimate in gourmet dining. Despite its being ugly and deadly poisonous, the fugu is eulogized as subtle, delicate, smooth as silk, and indescribably delicious!

How poisonous can it be? Have the Japanese truly been risking terminal indigestion for hundreds of years? According to chemical analysis, the fish contains tetradotoxin, an anesthetic over one hundred times more potent than cocaine and twenty—five times more powerful than curare. The white powder in one medium—sized fugu, one—tenth the weight of an aspirin, is sufficiently poisonous to kill thirty people. A lethal dose of one milligram could be served on a pinhead, making the fugu the most deadly creature ever to cross a dinner plate. And there is no known antidote.

One authority, supporting his claim of puffer's potency, cites an incident in which a man merely picked up the roasted entrails of a puffer and went into a coma that lasted for twenty—four hours. A restaurant owner has described the terrible death following consumption of the fish, in which the victim can think clearly but cannot speak or move and eventually cannot breathe. Such was also the experience of Captain James Cook, who with several of his crew tried the merest taste of the roe. Cook wrote in his log that all "were seized with weakness, numbness, no sense of feeling, vomiting and sweat. The pig that ate the entrails was found dead the next morning."

The secret to surviving this ultimate feast is in its preparation. The edible portion of the fugu is the flesh, provided that it has not been contaminated by the liver, ovaries, intestines, kidneys, or eyes. Qualified fugu chefs must undergo rigorous training, pass difficult examinations, and be apprenticed for three years to be licensed.

Beyond the mere preparation of the fugu to remove all toxic portions is the artistic presentation of the dish itself. Cut very thin and arranged in exquisite patterns on a platter, the fugu appears to justify the price of up to $450 for a single dinner. The ultimate disgrace for any chef would be to have his customer carried out of the restaurant feet first. Compared with this, the return of an improperly prepared dish to the kitchen is relatively trivial.

Despite the care and training that attends the eating of fugu, more than 200 Japanese have died during the past two decades from eating a fugu meal. The record among experienced chefs is excellent, and most of the fugu deaths are the result of improper preparation at home. Other terminal feasts have been served when a devotee of fugu pleads with the chef for the ultimate thrill, such as a serving of detoxified (with no guarantee) liver or ovaries. Although the recovery rate for life—threatening toxicity is about 50 percent, ingesting lethal organs routinely becomes a true "ultimate" meal!

In 1989 fugu finally invaded the United States, but not without resistance. It took four years of negotiations with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before a New York restaurateur was granted permission to import fugu. The FDA requirements restricted imports to the tiger puffer from the city of Shimonoseki, where there has not been a single incident of fugu poisoning in the past half century. It is air—freighted to the United States only from October to March — the non—mating season — after all toxin—bearing organs are removed and accounted for. It is then subjected to inspection and chemical analysis, washed, cleaned, and fast—frozen, to be used within four months. Chefs approved for processing fugu for import are required to have at least ten years' experience.

Even the most meticulously detoxified fugu contains traces of tetradotoxin, and ingested in minute amounts it produces a mildly narcotic effect. Symptoms of the "fugu high" are a slight tingling sensation in the lips and numbing of the fingertips, both essential for the full enjoyment of fugu. These responses scarcely justify risking death, so why is the reservation list so long that people wait months and pay large sums (only $160 in New York) for a fugu dinner? Is this an adventure in good eating (fugu is often compared to free—range chicken, frogs' legs, rabbit, or squid), or an Eastern version of Russian roulette? Is fugu, like most risky foods, a powerful aphrodisiac? Or, as with bungee jumping, do we merely want to tell our friends that we tried it — and lived?

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth