As Fugu Chefs’ Training Varies, Govt Looks to Set Standards

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Junji Fuchigami slices open a fugu pufferfish, carefully separating the edible parts, left, from the inedible ones, at the Toyosu Market in Koto Ward, Tokyo, on Dec. 17.

The fugu pufferfish is known as a winter delicacy in Japan, but parts of it are poisonous, so mistakes can be fatal. Each prefecture has its own code regarding the qualification needed for cooking the fish, and the actual standard varies from prefecture to prefecture. The government has finally started to unify the criteria, but it is uncertain whether the same standard for cooking fugu will be achieved nationwide.

■ Standards vary

At the fugu detoxification station in a corner of Toyosu Market in Koto Ward, Tokyo, Junji Fuchigami, 45, opened up a fat torafugu pufferfish with a knife. Within about 10 minutes, the fillet, skin and soft roe were separated from the toxic parts such as the heart and kidneys. Fuchigami, who is licensed to cook pufferfish in Tokyo and work for Yamafu, a wholesaler at Toyosu Market, said, “Kidney fragments sometimes stick to the body and bones.” The toxic parts are frozen and carefully put into a locked trash can until incinerated.

Fugu poison can kill even in a very small amount of less than one milligram. That is why only cooks who have obtained a license for cooking the fish can do so.

■ Trust in experience

The prefectural government of Osaka, where there are plenty of fugu restaurants, was the first to regulate selling and serving the fish. In 1948, the prefecture introduced a code that prohibited sales or operation without the governor’s permission.

There are currently about 110,000 licensed cooks in Osaka Prefecture, by far the largest number in Japan.

Fugu became popular in Osaka because people became accustomed to it through nabemono, a dish cooked in a pot at the table. Hisashi Matsumura, former vice chairman of the Japan Fugu Association who knows a lot about the history of fugu said, “Fugu caught in western Japan have been distributed throughout Osaka as it is known for its kuidoraku spirit, which means living on delicious food.” As for nabemono, Matsumura said: “Many Osakans prefer it to sashimi. They also preferred to eat in large groups and this custom made it popular.”

Under the prefectural code in Osaka, people can get a license to cook fugu only by attending training sessions, without taking a practical test. But there have been no major problems with food poisoning, even though it has been eaten so widely. This is believed to be due to trust in the skills and experience passed down to the cooks.

The Tokyo metropolitan government, on the other hand, is strict in that only those who have an ordinary chef’s license and at least two years of practical experience are qualified to take the test, which also assesses “knowledge,” “practical skills” and “fugu differentiation.”

“Various kinds of fugu from all over Japan are found in Tokyo. We have to give the qualification to people with a broad range of knowledge and skills,” a metropolitan government official said.

According to a 2019 survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 16 prefectures, including Hokkaido and Hyogo, qualify cooks without making them take a test. Within the industry, some have voiced concerns that “food poisoning could occur in areas where knowledge and skills are not properly tested.”

■ Hybrid fish

In recent years, fugu have moved to more northward habitats and the number of hybrid species has increased around the country, possibely due to global warming. According to Hiroshi Takahashi, an associate professor at the National Fisheries University, crosses between shosaifugu pufferfish and gomafugu pufferfish have been seen in coastal areas of eastern Japan since around 2012. A survey of fugu caught off Miyagi Prefecture in July 2020 showed that about 15% of them were crossbreeds.

The poisonous parts of fugu may differ depending on the species. For example, soft roe is inedible in some. “The more hybrids there are, the more difficult it is to determine where the poisonous parts are,” said Takahashi.

The ministry has compiled a draft standard for the certification of academic and practical examinations, and has asked prefectural governments to review the certification system by fiscal 2021, aiming to create a unified standard.

Still, many problems remain for those prefectures in which cooks are licensed only through training sessions. They should secure instructors who can assess their skills and procure the many kinds of fugu necessary for practical tests.