In Japan fugu–or pufferfish–also are called teppo (gun), a reference to their deadliness when handled inexpertly. The intestines, ovaries and liver contain tetrodotoxin (TTX), 1,200 times deadlier than cyanide and among the most powerful poisons found in nature. TTX also has been detected in species of pufferfish found in Baja California and Titusville, Fla. Upon ingesting it, a victim first feels numbness of the lips and tongue. Symptoms quickly graduate to salivating, vomiting, twitching and finally convulsive death. The lethal dose for an adult male is small enough to fit on the head of a pin, and a single pufferfish typically contains enough to kill 30 people.

It was a brave man that first ever ate a fugu.

Since 1958, chefs licensed to prepare fugu (by removing the offending organs and other toxic tissues) have been required to apprentice for at least three years under a master chef. As a result, the cost of a fugu meal is more than most Japanese can easily afford–upwards of $200. The need for taking such extreme precautions dates back to the 1500s, when fugu-eating troops, assembled for an invasion of Korea, supposedly suffered a mass poisoning. A 200-year prohibition on fugu followed. Then in 1888, Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first prime minister, lifted the ban.

Even today, however, at least several dozen diners die annually. In 1975 one of Japan’s most famous kabuki actors plucked his last lute, thanks to fugu. The fish remains the only delicacy denied the emperor–too risky. Epicures and suicides who seek it head for Shimonoseki, a city on the western tip of Japan’s main island. Perhaps 500 fugu chefs live here, and more than half of all the fugu consumed in Japan passes through Shimonoseki’s markets. When served in restaurants, paper-thin slices of the fish typically are arranged in the shape of a chrysanthemum–the flower of funerals in Japan.

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