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To Die For

The critic, his face obscured, outside Mukoujima Hashimoto.  

My wife wasn’t so sure about my plan.

“You can’t do that!” she said, when I told her that I would be dining on the notorious Japanese puffer fish.

“It’s supposed to be perfectly safe.”

“Poison sperm sacs?!”

“They say it’s not so bad.”

“Think of your children!”

After trawling the Internet, late at night, searching for information about this grisly little fish, I had to admit she had a point. Blowfish, or puffer fish, are found in oceans all over the world, and often gather in brackish, coastal waters at the mouths of great rivers. Not all blowfish are deadly (there are over 100 varieties, about 30 of which are found in Japan), but the deadly ones are very deadly indeed. Tetrodotoxin is the name of the poison that collects in the fish, especially in the liver and ovaries. The compound is thought to be produced by shellfish that blowfish, notorious bottom-feeders, are fond of consuming.

Tetrodotoxin can cause a pleasing numbing sensation when eaten in tiny amounts, but if you ingest too much of the substance, nothing pleasant at all happens. The symptoms of tetrodotoxin poisoning include dizziness, exhaustion, and nausea. Eventually your muscles begin to freeze—first your lips and tongue, then the tips of your fingers, then your hands, then your arms and legs, and finally your heart and lungs. Victims typically remain conscious, but are eventually paralyzed and can’t move or speak. (In parts of Japan, legend has it, the bodies of fugu-overdose victims were once laid beside their open caskets for several days to ensure that they were not being buried alive.) The amount of tetrodotoxin required to kill a man can fit on the head of a pin. Tetrodotoxin poisoning has no known cure.

Blowfish bones have been excavated in shell mounds in Japan going back more than 2,000 years, and the Japanese remain by far the world’s largest consumers of the fish, eating an estimated 10,000 tons of it each year. The country’s ravenous appetite for fugu is, in part, a simple function of taste. Connoisseurs say that fugu, an extremely lean fish, has a pure, almost pristine freshness. “Cleanliness,” says chef Masa. “That’s the special fugu umami.” (Umami translates literally as a savory Japanese flavor, but the term connotes a kind of mystical deliciousness.) But much of fugu’s allure, of course, comes from its air of danger. As the owner of a fugu museum in Osaka once put it, “Human beings are funny. They want to eat what is forbidden.” Japanese poets have penned tragic verses referencing fugu (“I cannot see her tonight / I have to give her up / So I will eat fugu,” goes one work by the eighteenth-century haikuist Yosa Buson), and the dish was once so popular that during the Tokugawa and Meiji periods (1603–1912), Japanese authorities banned people from eating it. In modern Japan, it’s still illegal to serve fugu to the emperor.

The center of the country’s modern blowfish industry is Shimonoseki, a bustling fishing town known in travel brochures as Fugu City. Most of the country’s live catch comes through there, and many more fish are raised in great aqua-farms off the coast. Only specially licensed chefs are allowed to prepare and sell fugu. The famous fugu “licensing exam” is typically given in the summertime, when the fish are smaller and therefore harder to identify. Applicants must pass a written exam, differentiate poison fugu species from nonpoisonous ones, identify which parts of the fugu are and aren’t toxic, and clean the fish correctly in front of board of health inspectors. The trick to preparing the fish safely involves separating the fillets and the other edible parts from the toxic innards without tainting the flesh with so much as a speck of poison. First, the fins and tail of the fish are cut off, then an incision is made down the back, so that the skin can be peeled away, like a banana’s. Next, the poisonous entrails are removed and the head is cut in half so that the fugu’s eyes can be taken out, since they’re poisonous, too. Many fugu chefs perform these delicate tasks wearing rubber gloves. The traditional fugu-hiki knife they use is a long, sinister-looking implement designed for getting the maximum amount of flesh from the small and expensive fish. The chefs who pass the exam are given a certificate that must be displayed at their restaurants.

Because people have died foraging in garbage cans behind fugu restaurants, and because fugu innards can be used as a poison, chefs must, by law, keep the fish entrails in a container at their restaurant, under lock and key. In Tokyo, the containers are taken to fish markets, where city authorities incinerate them.