By Ling Zhao, Chengdu Tour Manager
Pufferfish are among some of the most poisonous vertebrae in the world, yet for some reason they are eaten as a delicacy in many Asian countries including China. Despite the Chinese government banning the preparation and serving of this fish since 1990, it is still quite popular and often sold off-menu. In fact, the government estimates approximately 30-50,000 of them are eaten each year!
So…Why Do We Eat Pufferfish?
As one of the oldest countries in the world, China has lot of experience to share. In fact, there are documents in China mentioning the preparation and eating of pufferfish from 1700 years ago!
Everyone knows Chinese people love to eat, but very few people know how much effort we have made to get there. When we talk about eating pufferfish in China, we primarily refer to those that swim up the Yangzi River. All Chinese people know this fish as one of the most delicious yet most dangerous foods in China. We even have a well known phrase that means something like: “We’re so desperate to eat a pufferfish that we’re willing to risk our own life.” We often say this to someone who is a true foodie or someone who takes a great risk to accomplish something.
Typically the organs and skin are most poisonous to humans, but that can depend on the time of year and their gender. In China, we often prepare pufferfish in a stew or soup, and people believe that the best time to eat it is just before Tomb Sweeping Festival in spring. We also believe that if you turn the fish skin upside down and swallow it whole, it will be very good for your stomach.
The 3 Ancient Rules of Eating Pufferfish
1. You are never invited to eat pufferfish, it is truly eat at your own risk! In the past, guests would just walk in and eat. The host would not welcome you or be responsible if you were poisoned.
Note: This is why we aren’t going to tell you where to eat pufferfish (and also because we are too scared ourselves)!
2. The chef should always take the first bite. The liver is known to contain the strongest toxins and chefs need to be well-trained to make sure it is thoroughly cleaned and well prepared. Typically the fish is cooked with the head (including eyes) and skin over very high heat as people assumed it would kill all of the poison.
3. Go Dutch. You should never buy anyone else a meal of pufferfish! This emphasizes that it is always a personal choice. In fact, in some regions patrons will put their money under their bowls to show that the meal was paid for by themselves.
What Happens if You’re Poisoned
The toxins will deaden your tongue and lips and cause dizziness and vomiting followed by numbness and prickling over the body. Serious cases will experience a rapid heart rate, decreased blood pressure, and muscle paralysis. Eventually the toxin will paralyze your diaphragm muscle and stop you from breathing. The good news is that if you live longer than 24 hours, the chances of surviving are high!
Can You Find Pufferfish Today?
In 2017, the ban in China was slightly relaxed and the government now allows two species of pufferfish from certified farmers. Hopefully this new regulation better guarantees the quality of the fish and the safety of its preparation. While the source of pufferfish toxins are largely unknown, many people believe it is caused from the fish’s diet as the food they eat forms the poison in their organs. Apparently the approved species are farmed with food selected to be less harmful.
So…are you going to try? Let us know if you do!