Yoshitaka Takahashi’s hands are shaking as he scores and cleans the skin of the fish in front of him.
The tension rises again when his knife reaches the liver. The slightest mistake in removing the highly toxic organ could end in an agonising death for anyone who eats his fish.
Twenty minutes later, the chef has successfully prepared a whole fugu – or puffer fish – a Japanese delicacy whose capacity to maim and kill is dividing the country’s culinary world.
Watched by an examiner, Takahashi places the flesh, fins and other parts in a tray marked “edible”; in another he places the liver, ovaries and other organs that contain a neurotoxin 1,000 times more powerful than potassium cyanide.
“The hardest part is ensuring the parts that can be eaten are absolutely clean,” says Takahashi, one of dozens of chefs being put through their paces at a culinary school in Tokyo in preparation for a test to obtain their fugu licence. “If any poison finds its way on to the edible parts, it would be disastrous.”
Despite the risks, officials in Saga prefecture, western Japan, are calling for an end to the decades-old ban on serving the liver – considered by some to be the tastiest part of the fish – in restaurants.
With help from a local fisheries firm and university researchers, the officials claim they have perfected a method of farming the fish that ensures the liver contains not a single trace of tetrodotoxin. If digested, the neurotoxin causes numbness around the mouth, followed by paralysis and death by asphyxiation. There is no known antidote.
The poison in the fugu is produced
when the fish feed on poisonous starfish, snails and other creatures. Rearing the fish on food that is toxin-free removes the risk, or so the theory goes.
But owners of hundreds of fugu restaurants in Saga have warned that relaxing the law could end up killing diners.
“If the prefecture’s proposal is approved, many consumers will mistakenly believe that puffer fish liver is safe to eat, resulting in more accidents,” Yuichi Makita, vice-chairman of the restaurant association, told the Asahi Shimbun. “There is no absolute guarantee of safety.”
One of the biggest fears is that wild and poisonous fugu will find their way into cordoned off breeding pens and mix with their non-toxic counterparts.
“I would never serve the liver or other poisonous parts, no mater how many reassurances I’d been given,” says Takahashi, who will return next week to take the official test.
The liver lobby, led by the prefecture’s governor, Yoshinori Yamaguchi, is not giving up. A panel of experts from Japan’s food safety commission is to rule on the safety of Saga’s farmed fugu by the end of the year.
The frisson of danger that accompanies eating fugu has secured it a special status among diners and chefs, who must train for at least three years before attempting to qualify for a license. The test’s success rate is just 35%.
In the hands of a specially licensed chef, fugu poses little risk to diners, who pay anything from 5,000 yen to 35,000 yen (£260) a head for a multiple-course meal that typically includes sashimi, a chirinabe hotpot, deep-fried karaage, rice porridge and hot saké served with a grilled fugu fin.
Eating fugu served by an unlicensed chef, however, can be fatal: between 2006 and 2015, 10 people died after eating the fish, most of whom had attempted to prepare it themselves.
The 16th-century feudal warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi banned blowfish consumption among his soldiers, and similar nationwide bans stayed in place through the Edo period (1603-1868). Fugu is said to be the only fish Japan’s emperor is not allowed to eat.
Perhaps the most famous victim was the Kabuki actor and national living treasure Bando Mitsugoro VIII, who in 1975 died just over four hours after eating four servings of fugu liver, having convinced the chef that he had developed a natural resistance to the toxin’s crippling effects.
The latest demand for change to the law, which officials believe will draw tourists to Saga, comes after several people were arrested for serving the liver in restaurants. In one case, police in Osaka arrested eight people, including a restaurant manager, on suspicion of serving the liver of the torafugu – the most prized member of the fugu family – as sashimi.
The idea of serving the liver – even from supposedly safe fish – horrifies Fumiaki Shimoda, a senior member of the Tokyo fugu cuisine association, who has prepared hundreds of the fish since gaining his license more than a decade ago.
“How can you be absolutely sure that it’s OK to eat?” he says. “Some people say that the liver is the most delicious part, but I’ve never tried it and there’s no way I would serve it in my restaurant. Even eating liver that producers insist is safe is like playing Russian roulette.”