At first glance, puffer fish may not appear the most appetizing of foods: the northern puffer, a club-shaped fish that can grow to eight to 10 inches and inflates into a spiny ball under duress, is unappealing by design. Famously, the variety of puffer fish most often served in Japan contains a poisonous toxin and requires special regulations for its preparation. But beneath the spines and despite the tetrodotoxins lies a succulent white fish, says Bryan Voltaggio, a Top Chef alum who just opened the Estuary in Washington, D.C., along with his brother, and Top Chef winner, Michael Voltaggio. And while sushi restaurants in the U.S. have long served the fish, increasingly, it’s appearing on restaurant menus in a different form.
“It’s probably one of the greatest little snacks that comes out of the water,” Bryan Voltaggio says. “They can be a very easy finger food.”
At Estuary, puffer fish tails are marinated in mirin (a Japanese rice wine) and tamari and quickly roasted in oil. Though not battered and fried, the fish tails get slightly crispy. They’re served with tartar sauce that’s folded with a little bit of banana for sweetness, plus a side of pickled banana peppers. Voltaggio likens the experience of eating them to eating chicken wings, due to the small bone that runs down the center of the tail.
In recent months, versatile preparations of the Atlantic Ocean’s northern puffer fish — especially puffer fish tails, or the portion of the fish from just behind its head to its tail fin — have been spotted at restaurants in the United States fried like fish sticks, breaded like Buffalo wings, and even grilled with spices. The particular puffer fish used in the U.S., Sphoeroides maculatus, is one of more than 150 varieties of puffer fish and can be found in estuaries and bays along the Eastern seaboard. And it’s having a moment.
Are puffer fish and blowfish the same thing?
The fish goes by several names, and all of them — puffer fish, fugu, blowfish — refer to the same family of scaleless fish with a rough and spiky skin. Some are poisonous, while others, like the northern puffer fish, are not. Other names include blow toads, swelling toads, sea squab, honey toad, and sugar toads, all references to the way the fish bloat up like amphibians.
Where can you find puffer fish in the U.S.
In the United States, nontoxic puffer fish can be found most often on the East Coast, and commonly in Southern cooking. The fish are known for their firm but tender white meat, and over the past few years, restaurant chefs have taken note.
In addition to the Voltaggio brothers at Estuary, chef Jeremiah Langhorne of the Dabney in D.C. has served his own version of puffer fish, or sugar toads, since the restaurant opened in 2015. Langhorne’s dish is prepared in a manner similar to Buffalo wings. The cuts of fish arrive headless and are trimmed to remove fins and outer membranes. They’re then doused in spiced buttermilk marinade, dredged in flour, and deep-fried before a final glaze. Over the years, Langhorne says, he has tried to change the recipe, “but our guests revolted, so we changed it back.”
The fish has also been spotted at popular New York City spots Frenchette and Lilia. At Lilia, it appears under the name “blowfish” and is served grilled with lemon salmoriglio and cracked coriander. At Frenchette, one of Eater’s 2018 Best New Restaurants, the restaurant prepares the tails in a chile butter and grills them, bone-in. Eater NY critic Ryan Sutton suggests pairing the dish with pet-nat, a bubbly wine produced without the addition of yeast or sugar.
How do restaurants source puffer fish?
Langhorne’s sugar toads are sourced and fished from the waters of the Mid-Atlantic region. According to Langhorne, the fish were originally reeled in as a bycatch product, swept along with other, more desirable species in commercial fishing. “But now, due to their growing popularity, some boats are fishing for them as a primary catch,” he says. The Voltaggios, too, source locally, through the J.J. McDonnell fish company, based in Maryland, which provides clean tails that require minimal trimming at the restaurant.
So what’s the deal with the poisonous puffers?
While the Northern puffer fish are not poisonous, other varieties of puffer fish contain a toxin that’s deadly to predators and humans alike. The poisonous puffer fish served in Japan, known as fugu, require careful handling prior to consumption. Chefs working with the fish must be certified to do so. They use specific techniques to remove the flavorful flesh from the parts of the fish that contain the toxin tetrodotoxin, which serves as a self-defense mechanism in the face of predators and proves up to 1,200 times more poisonous than cyanide for humans.
Fugu has been eaten for centuries and the poisonous fish remains a highly sought-after ingredient, perhaps because of the associated risk. Due in part to the meticulous care required to prepare puffer fish, countries around the world have banned it from restaurants, while others have sought varieties of puffer fish that do not contain the poisonous toxin and are therefore manageable to prepare.
The carefully handled poisonous puffer fish are most often served sashimi style, fanned out in the shape of a chrysanthemum flower (perhaps ironically, considering the deadly risks of the fish, the flower is a Japanese symbol of longevity). Fugu can also be fried, chicken wing style, or cooked into a soup or rice porridge. The flesh can be chewy if cut thicker, but is known to have a subtle but appealing flavor.
In the U.S., importing poisonous puffer fish is heavily regulated but not outright banned. The FDA cautions against buying puffer fish from any unknown sources, and has advised that the only approved puffer fish importer is Wako International in New York, which acquires the fish from facilities licensed to prepare it by the Japanese government. But for chefs like the Voltaggios and Langhorne, Northern puffer fish provides another way to bring a less familiar ingredient to customers, without the risk.