Why Does Deadly Pufferfish Taste So Good?

Researchers in China have identified the key compounds responsible for the exotic taste of pufferfish.

AsianScientist (Jan. 30, 2019) – Toxic as they may be, some people consider pufferfish—or fugu—a delicacy, and scientists in China now know what gives fugu its unique and exquisite flavor. They reported their findings in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Pufferfish get their name from their ability to inflate to a much larger size when threatened by predators. But if that defense mechanism fails, the predator may not survive long after its meal: the liver, ovaries, eyes and skin of most species of pufferfish contain tetrodotoxin, a potent neurotoxin.

Although specially-trained chefs can prepare fugu that is safe to eat, Professor Liu Yuan and colleagues at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China, wondered if they could reproduce the flavor of pufferfish chemically, thereby completely avoiding contact with the toxin.

The researchers analyzed the taste-active compounds in Takifugu obscurus, a species of pufferfish found mainly in the East and South China Seas. They ground up pufferfish muscle tissue and cooked, filtered and centrifuged it to produce a liquid pufferfish extract. The team then analyzed the extract and found amounts of 28 potential taste-active compounds, such as free amino acids, nucleotides and inorganic ions.

Taste tests with trained panelists revealed that 12 of these compounds, when added to water, best simulated the flavor of pufferfish, which involved strong umami (savory) and kokumi (mouthfulness) components.

Hence, chefs seeking to serve fugu-flavored dishes can now do so without having to worry about exposing diners to deadly tetrodotoxin. Although this removes the thrill of eating dangerously, it may grant more people around the world the opportunity to taste pufferfish.

The article can be found at: Zhang et al. (2019) Sensory-Guided Analysis of Key Taste-Active Compounds in Pufferfish (Takifugu obscurus).


Source: American Chemical Society; Photo: Liu Yuan.
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