And then the tingling sensation begins. It starts on my lips and seems to be quickly tracking down the back of my throat. I put down my chopsticks and shift my legs under the table. I bring the tips of my fingers to my mouth and begin touching my lips in a tender, slightly agitated way, like a dental patient shot full of Novocain.
“Do your lips feel numb?” I ask Shinji.
“My lips don’t feel numb!” he cries, between enthusiastic bites of fugu flesh.
“What’s the problem?”
“Don’t people get numb lips when they eat fugu,” I hear myself say. “Or does that mean I’m going to die?”
By now Hashimoto is aware that I’m a restaurant critic from New York, and he’s hovering over the table, looking on in his fish-stained coat. Shibireru is the Japanese word for “to become numb,” and within fugu circles its presence, during the course of the meal, is a matter of debate. In his book, Parker Bowles writes that a fugu chef’s skill lies in removing the liver and ovaries intact while “leaving the slightest trace of poison to gently numb the lips.” He goes on to say, however, that “many gourmands disagree, arguing that the numbing of the lips is urban myth.” Hashimoto favors the urban-myth theory. He suggests that in my excitement, I am probably experiencing a kind of phantom shibireru. Because of the intensity of the fugu’s poison, if I were feeling real numbness, my situation would be dire indeed. “It is your mind playing tricks,” the chef says. “If your lips are really numb, then nobody can save you. If your lips are really numb, Mr. Platt, then you are already dead.”
To attempt to calm my nerves, I order one glass of beer, then another. But the small room feels even smaller now. A sheen of flop sweat has collected on my forehead, and my heart is racing like a baboon’s. Trying not to act like the terror-stricken foreigner undergoing the classic fugu near-death experience, I take out my notebook and begin professionally asking the chef about his trade. He tells me he has been preparing the fish since 1986, when he began working part time at a fugu restaurant while studying sociology in college. “I always wanted to be a craftsman,” Hashimoto says, “and this is a lot more exciting than sociology.” Did he have a favorite part of the fugu experience? “I like every part of the dinner,” says the chef. “You don’t go to the circus just to see the tigers; you go to the circus to enjoy the whole show.”
“Where the hell is everybody?” I whisper to my interpreter in the empty restaurant. “Maybe it’s the rain,” he replies. “Or maybe Chef Hashimoto has killed them.”
More sake is served, followed by more beer, followed by our next course, which is a little helping of deep-fried fugu ribs. The bony ribs (“These look like hamster ribs,” I tell Shinji) are hacked in little pieces, tossed in flour, and seasoned with sea salt and a sprinkling of the dried kelp called kombu. The ribs have the nice meaty texture of monkfish, they’re perfectly fried, and they’re delicious. (This may simply prove that anything tastes good fried, including bony, potentially fatal fish ribs.) I eat several of them, trying not to focus on the phantom-shibireru sensation that now seems to be creeping, inexorably, toward my lungs and heart. I’m moved, between bites, to ask Hashimoto whether there has ever been a fugu “accident” in his restaurant. Shinji translates my question, and the chef says something that causes the two dignified Japanese gentlemen to laugh out loud.
“Chef Hashimoto says if someone had an accident in his restaurant, he wouldn’t tell you, because it would be bad for business,” says Shinji. “But don’t worry, there was an American in here a few weeks ago, and he didn’t have an accident.”
“But Mr. Hashimoto thinks you should know something.”
“That other American, he didn’t eat fugu sperm sac.”
With the possible exception of the illicit liver, no part of the fugu creates quite the same flutter of excitement among blowfish lovers as the fugu sperm sac. The literal translation of shira-ko is “white babies.” (“In Japan,” Shinji tells me, “we have many ways of avoiding direct expression.”) In fugu circles, it’s considered an exotic seasonal treat: Because the fish spawn in early spring, the delicacy appears only briefly, like the white truffles from Alba that fill the grand New York restaurants every fall. The appeal of the dish, according to Chef Masa, comes in part from its pure, milky texture (“It’s smooth,” he says, “like Brie cheese”) and its obvious overtones of virility. But the dish’s most enticing quality is its extra touch of lethality. It’s the only edible part of the fugu innards, and when not fully engorged, the sperm sac looks uncannily like a set of the deadly fugu ovaries. “If you eat fresh ovary by mistake,” says Hashimoto, “then you die.”