Pufferfish a hit in Japan, despite the risks

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Every year in Japan people are hospitalised after eating pufferfish; sometimes the result is fatal. But despite apparent dangers, strict rules on serving the toxic delicacy in Tokyo are to be relaxed.

Aficionados say the tingle that the meat of the pufferfish leaves on your lips -- caused by the potent neurotoxin it contains -- is part of the appeal.

Never mind that the numbness tetrodotoxin creates can progress to paralysis and breathing problems.

Or that, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, consumption can prove fatal within four to six hours and "the victim, although completely paralysed, may be conscious and in some cases completely lucid until shortly before death".

Diners at Shigekazu Suzuki's restaurant, however, can be sure they are in no danger when they select their pufferfish -- an ugly and, to the untutored eye, rather unappetising looking creature -- from a tank near the kitchen.

Suzuki is one of an exclusive coterie of Tokyo chefs who have undergone special training and licensing that allows them to serve the potentially fatal fish, known as fugu in Japan.

"It's not easy for non-licensed people to clean fugu," Suzuki said at his branch of the "Torafugu-tei" chain in upmarket Ginza, as he stripped the toxic internal organs from the freshly killed fish with his razor-sharp knife.

"I have not eaten these bits because I'm scared," he said, gripping the light yellow ovary -- one of the most poisonous parts of the fish -- and throwing it into a locked metal pot.

According to Suzuki, it takes about five years to pass the fugu licence exam, which includes paper and practical tests on how to distinguish poisonous parts from others.

Stringent regulations are often credited with the low level of fatalities, but reports of fishermen dying after eating their own inexpertly-prepared catch continue to surface.

And thrill-seeking diners sometimes ask to be served the banned internal organs. Occasionally, a chef will oblige.

In December, the Tokyo government revoked the licence for a chef at a Michelin two-star restaurant after he had served the fish's liver to a diner who asked for it. She recovered after a few days in hospital.

"Some people really want to try the dangerous parts because they think it might be really good," said Mahiro Shin, a 33-year-old customer at Torafugu-tei.

"And sometimes some people get sick, but most people like us don't take such risks," he said.

A set meal of fugu hot pot at Torafugu-tei costs roughly 5,000 yen ($63), but prices in some of the more exclusive restaurants in notoriously pricey Tokyo can rise to tens of thousands of yen.

But, said diner Yohei Watanabe, the premium the seasonal delicacy attracts is easily justified.

"It is a bit more expensive than regular fish but it's definitely worth it," he said.

According to Japan's health and welfare ministry, 17 people fell ill after eating fugu last year. One of them died.

Under the present system, restaurants in the Tokyo Metropolitan area, home to some 13 million people, can only serve fugu if they have a specially-trained chef working on site.

But in a move that surprised some observers, the authorities in the capital earlier this year announced plans to relax the rules.

From October eateries will be allowed to buy in ready-prepared fugu -- packaged or frozen, for example -- provided it came from a licensed chef.

Unprepared fugu will continue to be banned from menus at restaurants without licensed personnel.

The rule change is more of a technicality to catch up with current practice, the authorities argue.

Tokyo consumers have long bought fugu meat from other areas of the country via the Internet, most notably from the southern Kyushu region known for its food.

"We have concluded that the revision of the regulation won't lead to any chances of triggering fugu poisoning," a Tokyo Metropolitan government official said.

Chef Suzuki said he was not worried about competition when the new rules come into force.

"Due to the deregulation, more restaurants can serve fugu so that more customers can enjoy it and then will be properly aware of the culture of eating fugu," the 44-year-old told AFP.

"We licensed chefs will continue taking care of it properly," he said.

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