Tokyo chefs on a knife-edge

Who can serve a poisonous fish delicacy is dividing Japan's culinary elite, writes Justin McCurry.

It is the culinary equivalent of a game of Russian roulette: a delicacy for which diners pay good money in the knowledge they are eating fish that, prepared incorrectly, could kill them. Fugu (blowfish) served as tempura or sashimi, or baked and added to a glass of hot sake, is a rare treat in Tokyo.

But food authorities are preparing to introduce a change to regulations, allowing unlicensed restaurants to serve fugu - a move that will make eating the fish cheaper but which some chefs say could raise the risk for diners.

The Japanese government says the change brings the city into line with less rigorous preparation regimes practised in most other parts of the country. The removal of poisonous parts will still be performed, off-site, by licensed chefs before the detoxified flesh is delivered to the unlicensed restaurants.

Among the critics of the revision are qualified chefs who have spent years learning to safely handle fugu. In the hands of an expert, fugu poses almost no risk to diners, who pay up to 35,000 yen ($430) a head for a multiple-course meal and, perhaps, the frisson of danger that accompanies eating a fish containing a toxin many times more deadly than cyanide.

Chefs train for at least two years to obtain a licence. By the time they qualify they can strip a fugu of its toxic parts in a few minutes, using razor-sharp knives that are stored separately. The exam is notoriously tough - only 35 per cent of candidates pass.

They dismiss as a myth the idea that trace amounts of poison are occasionally left intact to produce a tingling sensation on the diner's lips.

But some chefs can be persuaded to serve the liver, for which toxicity levels vary dramatically. Last December, Tokyo food safety authorities revoked the licence of a chef at a two-Michelin-star restaurant after he had served the liver to an insistent diner. She suffered partial paralysis and recovered days later in hospital.

Several people die every year after attempting to prepare fugu at home. The flesh is safe but other parts, including the liver, heart, intestines and ovarie0s, contain tetrodotoxin, which can kill if ingested, even in minute quantities. There were 23 deaths among 338 fugu-poisoning cases recorded in Japan from 2000 to 2009.

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