Before I’d arrived at this dark, back-alley restaurant in Tokyo, I’d been told that trust was the most crucial element involved when choosing a fugu chef. It was like selecting a heart surgeon or a private pilot. “The fugu chef has your life in his hands,” one of my Japanese friends had said. Which is why my first impulse, upon greeting Mr. Naohisa Hashimoto, is to turn around, in the most diplomatic possible way, of course, and run screaming back to my hotel. Hashimoto is dressed in a white chef’s coat that’s slightly stained around the pockets with fish guts. He has a spiky haircut, like the wires on a brush, and big, prominent ears, which give him a passing resemblance to Don Knotts.
His little restaurant, called Mukoujima Hashimoto, is located on a lonely residential street in the working-class Sumida section of Tokyo (“If we are in New York, this is Queens,” my interpreter says), a tidy establishment with just three low-slung tables set over tatami matting. The chef lives above his place, like an old-time saloon keeper. Only tonight, there are no sounds of clattering pots coming from upstairs, no comforting pitter-patter of tiny children’s feet. There are no waiters, either; no dishwashers, no friendly neighbors dropping by for a cup of tea. As every food-obsessed traveler knows, the first rule when looking for a decent meal in a strange place is to choose a crowded room. But on this April Friday evening in otherwise bustling Tokyo, this curious little fugu restaurant is as empty as a tomb.
Still addled by jet lag, I’d come to Mukoujima Hashimoto feeling disoriented, a little frazzled, and also in a blinding rainstorm, much the way, it later occurred to me, Janet Leigh had arrived at the Bates Motel. Blowfish (fugu is derived from “fuku,” which means “to blow” in Japanese) is mainly a winter delicacy in Japan (the season runs from October to early spring), so many of the city’s more prominent fugu houses were either closed or had begun serving inferior farm-raised, or “caged,” blowfish. Several calls around the fugu network by my interpreter, Shinji Nohara, had revealed that Chef Hashimoto had just returned from Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market with a prime tora, or “tiger,” fugu, caught in the waters off Miyazaki prefecture, in southern Japan. Even better, tonight, I’ve been told, he’ll be serving that most prized portion of the fugu anatomy known as shira-ko, a.k.a. the engorged fugu sperm sac. Tiger fugu is considered the filet mignon of blowfish, coveted, according to the twisted logic of fugu connoisseurs, for both its distinctive flavor and its unparalleled concentration of lethal toxins. And the shira-ko is among the most potentially fatal parts of the famously poisonous fish. Of all the dishes served in all the restaurants in all the world, you could argue, the particular seafood delicacy I’ve come fourteen time zones and 6,800 miles to ingest is the one that’s most likely to kill me dead.
Among the intrepid TV hosts and iron-stomached bloggers who span the globe looking for horrible things to eat, a potentially deadly blowfish dinner is a badge of honor, the thrill-seeking gastronome’s equivalent to scaling Mount Everest. Anthony Bourdain made a de rigueur fugu stop in Tokyo for his madcap food travel show A Cook’s Tour. In his engaging chronicle The Year of Eating Dangerously, the British food critic Tom Parker Bowles (the son of Prince Charles’s wife, Camilla Parker Bowles) manages to fit his death-defying fugu experience in between a barbecued-rib cook-off in Tennessee and a nutritious helping of boiled dog in South Korea. “A six-pound tiger fugu has enough poison to take out at least 32 healthy adults,” writes the daredevil Englishman with barely suppressed glee. Ruth Reichl has sampled deadly fugu (“It’s like eating fluke,” she told me, “only you’re playing Russian roulette”), as has Homer Simpson (the much-loved episode put the dish on the American cultural map). The dish used to be confined, thankfully, to Japan, but adventurous diners can now enjoy it in the States (Philadelphia, Chicago, and L.A. all have restaurants that serve fugu), though not in Europe, where it’s largely still banned. Something like a ton of blowfish is imported every year to New York, where fugu now appears, seasonally, on the menus of the city’s elite Japanese restaurants. At Morimoto, in the meatpacking district, a creation called “Fried Fugu Bone” sometimes appears on Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s elaborate chef’s-choice omakase menu. And the great sushi chef Masa Takayama serves fugu, sometimes the sperm sac, on the $400 fixed-price menu at his eponymous Time Warner Center restaurant.
After a long, sedentary career grazing smugly in the world’s finest restaurants, I thought it was time that I did a little daredevil eating of my own. I could have visited Morimoto or Masa for my fugu dinner, but the dirty little secret of the fugu fish served in New York is this: Despite what those who sell it or consume it may wish you to believe, it is almost certainly safe to eat. Restaurants serving blowfish in this country must buy it from a single Food and Drug Administration–approved supplier, Wako International, which imports all the fugu sold in the United States. The imported fugu is cleaned in a processing plant in Shimonoseki, in southwestern Japan, by workers with a decade or more of experience in this delicate craft. The meat is then inspected and frozen for its flight across the Pacific. By the time it arrives in New York (where it’s inspected again), the fish is probably less toxic than a piece of mercury-saturated tuna sushi at your local Korean deli. At Mukoujima Hashimoto, by contrast, my tiger fugu was purchased at the market, then cleaned by Hashimoto in his kitchen sink. That’s it. One man, one fish, no processing plants, no nosy government inspectors. My life was, in fact, in Hashimoto’s hands. For true fugu addicts, this is the only way to experience the thrilling, near-death pleasure of the real thing.