Any extreme-food expert will tell you that the best way to dine on a roasted grasshopper in Mexico, say, or a shot of snake blood in Laos, is to do it quickly. But as Shinji and I await our sperm sac, it occurs to me that the unique thing about the fugu experience, aside from the omnipresent thrill of near death, is the drawn-out, almost leisurely quality of the ordeal. Slowly, implacably, the tension level is ratcheted higher and higher, until the only option is to keep digging in with gusto or to put down your chopsticks and flee. Did I contemplate this shameful option when the shira-ko made its appearance at our table? In the throes of my phantom shibireru, maybe I did. After all, my throat had begun to tingle well before the arrival of the dreaded sperm sac. But at this point the meal has an almost ceremonial quality to it, and I’m too far inside this strange culinary fun house to quit.
Presently, Hashimoto returns from his little kitchen with what looks like two glistening plastic bags of condensed milk. He wants us to see the real thing, the raw, unadulterated delicacy, before he starts preparing his dish. The shira-ko are as white as snow, bouncy to the touch, and disturbingly large, about the size of a pair of healthy water balloons. As I peer uncomfortably at these wet, slippery, very distended objects, it occurs to me that in a career of diligent and generally indiscriminate eating, these might possibly be the strangest food items I’ve ever been served. As we examine them politely, however, Shinji’s eyes light up. “That’s a really nice sperm sac,” he says.
The raw version is presented first, in elegant china bowls, with ground radish, bits of green onion, salt, chile, and a few drops of tart, lime-flavored ponzu sauce. Soy-based ponzu is one of the key ingredients in the fugu experience (as with barbecue sauce, every chef has his own, closely guarded recipe), and Hashimoto proudly tells me about his version (soy, vinegar, a type of lime called dai dai, and bonito flakes), as I gingerly lift the shira-ko with my chopsticks and put it on the tip of my tongue.
I’m tempted to say the dish I came halfway around the world to eat is disgusting, but it isn’t quite. It has a clean, creamy consistency, like Masa says, but the taste is so subtle that there’s really no taste at all. The pleasures of the dish, if there are any, are all textural.
“How is it?” asks Shinji.
“It’s very strange.”
“Ha, ha, ha, ha,” laughs Shinji. He’s amused by my predicament, and already a little drunk on sperm sac.
The tingling feeling in the back of my throat is now reaching defcon 2 levels. It feels less phantom with every bite. Was this, at long last, my restaurant critic’s Armageddon, my last meal on earth? I might have been better off that way. It turns out that the unpleasantness of raw sperm sac is mild compared to the horrors of the cooked version.
The grilled shira-ko is cut into bite-size pieces, gently browned over an open flame, and served to us piping hot on a small china plate garnished with a single shiso leaf. “We look for the perfect color, the perfect texture,” says Hashimoto, “but sometimes the taste is very subtle, even for me.”
I pop the grilled fish-sac morsel into my mouth, but it’s too hot to swallow; so I bite into it, and the hot milt bursts out in a most unnerving, even horrible way. It tastes like warm curds of milk, but without any of the pleasing, milky flavor.
I put down my chopsticks and begin to scribble absently in my note book. “Feeling disoriented, a little panicky,” read my notes, before trailing off into an illegible scrawl.
Fugu victims, I had heard, get their stomachs pumped and are force-fed charcoal to absorb the poison. I have images of harried doctors brandishing long green tubes, my face seized in a charcoal-covered grin. I retreat for a minute to the coffin-size restroom. I stare in the mirror, and gnaw at my possibly lifeless tongue, like a cow chewing its cud. I attempt to collect myself before I return to the table, but it’s no use. I’m in the midst of a full-blown paranoid fugu meltdown.
I ask Hashimoto for some more sake, and then, by mistake, pour it into the ponzu sauce.
“Chef Hashimoto wants to know how you like this dish,” says Shinji.
“I don’t think I like grilled sperm sac,” I say.
“Chef Hashimoto is not surprised,” says Shinji. “Chef Hashimoto says shira-ko is an acquired taste.”