To Die For

Photo: James Wojcik

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.

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.

Despite these precautions, “accidents,” the euphemism fugu professionals tend to use when discussing the perils of their trade, still happen. According to the Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health in Tokyo, 315 cases of poison by fugu were reported between 1996 and 2005 in Japan, 31 of which were fatal. Most victims were fishermen engaging in Russian-roulette-style bouts of fugu consumption, or amateur cooks who were trying to duplicate cooking demonstrations they’d seen on TV. The most notorious death by fugu was in Kyoto, in January 1975, when a Kabuki actor named Mitsugoro Bando VIII overdosed on the fish’s deadly liver. Chefs are now prohibited from serving fugu liver, but the pushy Bando is said to have demanded the delicacy, eaten four servings, and died.

At Mukoujima Hashimoto, I take off my shoes and attempt, with a kind of origami delicateness, to fold my giant lumberjack frame into one of the tiny tables. Except for Shinji and myself, the room remains ominously deserted. A cooking show flickers silently on the old TV: Antic Tokyo starlets are learning to cook from a dour gentleman wearing a tall chef’s hat.

“Where the hell is everybody?” I whisper to Shinji.

“Maybe it’s the rain,” he replies. “Or maybe Chef Hashimoto has killed them.”

My interpreter grins a merry grin. Shinji is a food writer and former law student who specializes in guiding jet-lagged foreigners on exotic culinary pilgrimages around Tokyo. He is also something of a fugu promoter, having introduced Anthony Bourdain to the dish when the nomad chef came through town for his TV show. Like most Japanese, Shinji says fugu is generally safe, and he likes to poke fun at what he considers the hysterical foreign caricature of the dish. “We don’t think about the poison,” he says. Fugu’s appeal, he believes, stems from a different primal force. “It’s seasonal, it’s ceremonial, and it’s expensive, so you can impress the girls.”

As we wait for our first course, I ask Shinji how Bourdain handled his fugu ordeal. The chef ate his fugu with gusto, Shinji says, although Shinji had suspicions that the fish they’d been served was actually raised in a cage and therefore possibly not so dangerous after all (because they’re raised in a controlled environment, on a controlled diet, farmed fugu are believed by some people to be less lethal than fresh-caught).

“Bourdain wasn’t ever going to die?!”

“I don’t know,” he says with smile. “Maybe not.”

But Shinji is certain about the potential deadliness of my dinner. We’d spent the day touring fugu establishments around Tokyo, and he’d been on his cell phone the whole time, searching the city for the last lethal fish of the season. He’d never met Hashimoto before tonight, or even heard of his little restaurant, but now that he’s found his tiger fugu, he’s a happy man. “I suppose if someone wanted to murder you, they would bring you here,” he says, between sips of sake. “We are in a strange neighborhood, you are far from home, there are no witnesses, and nobody knows you are here. It’s the perfect situation!”

In Tokyo, there are mass-marketed fugu chain restaurants and elite, ceremonial ones, like Ajiman, in Roppongi, where the multicourse omakase dinner can cost $450 per person. At Mukoujima Hashimoto, the elaborate “All Natural” prix fixe option costs a relatively modest $150. But at the chef’s suggestion, we order a six-course, à la carte, greatest-hits menu, one that includes fugu sashimi (fugu-sashi), fried fugu ribs (fugu kara-age), smoked fugu fins in sake (fugu hire-zake), hot fugu porridge (fugu-nabe), and the fugu sperm sac (shira-ko), which will be served two ways, raw and lightly grilled.

According to my already unsteady notes, the first course of our fugu dinner begins at precisely 8:13 p.m. In accordance with fugu custom, Hashimoto has sliced the precious shreds of fish so thin that you can see the blue-and-white patterns on the china plate underneath. The fish has been arranged in concentric circles to resemble a chrysanthemum, which, as Shinji happily explains, is the funeral flower of Japan. Shinji begins to eat. I ceremoniously drain another glass of sake, then take my first hesitant bite of the raw fish. Hashimoto’s fugu indeed has a certain clean sashimi quality to it, and a resilient chewiness, but otherwise it’s a letdown. It tastes flavorless and gummy, like a cross between Reichl’s fluke and day-old squid.

For a second or two, I begin to relax. I’m feeling a little smug, even. This is the legendary fugu? This is the dish that poets and emperors have risked their lives over the centuries to eat? It’s one of the most boring, most tedious, most un-fishy fish I’ve ever tasted. If there’s any poison, I can’t taste that either, and the tremulous heart palpitations and gathering dread that have been building since early this morning begin to melt away. Hashimoto is watching, so I dip more of the fish in the ponzu sauce and chew it, politely nodding and grinning to show my appreciation.

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.

“Oh God.”

“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.”

“That’s good.”

“But Mr. Hashimoto thinks you should know something.”

“What’s that?”

“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.”

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.”

I’d like to report that my fugu experience ended there, but it did not. Pickled ovaries are another esoteric fugu specialty (they’re only edible if soaked in salt for long periods), but mercifully, Chef Hashimoto is out of them tonight. Instead, we are presented with cups of warm sake infused with smoked fugu tails (“like a warm sardine milk shake,” according to my notes), an acquired taste even Shinji can’t seem to stomach. The final course, fugu-nabe, is a kind of porridge, made at the table with the remnants of the fish, including the tail, the spine, and the eyeless skull. After the neurotic drama of the early courses, the comforting stew is designed to calm the nerves, and it also gives Mr. Hashimoto a chance to display his skills as cook. He adds watercress and rice to a bubbling clay pot at our table, then breaks an egg into it. He scatters the steamy mixture with cabbage and fresh chives, then ladles it into white porcelain bowls.

The porridge is aromatic and subtly flavored, the perfect antidote for a rainy night. Shinji grins his merry grin. He likes this place; he might even bring his girlfriend here, he says. And gradually, as we sip our warm fugu-nabe, the jangling phantom-shibireru sensation I’ve been experiencing gives way to a peaceful, post-adrenaline calm.

I drink a cup of green tea, and we call for the check. Outside the restaurant, the rain has stopped, and the people of Sumida are out in the streets again. We thank Hashimoto and walk back to Shinji’s car, past a flower store and a tailor sewing an elaborate silk kimono in the window of his shop. After a memorable dinner, the usual emotions are contentment, pleasure, and, on rare occasions, even delight. But this was something different. Is the notorious Japanese fugu worth dying for? Of course not. Is it worth eating? That depends on your point of view. In my professional opinion, there are plenty of things that taste better than blowfish. But with fugu, perhaps, taste is not the point. Now that my meal is over, I feel like I’ve finished the culinary equivalent of bungee jumping, or shooting class-V rapids in an inner tube. My primary emotion isn’t excitement, or even satisfaction; it’s relief. Maybe it’s the sake, or the four bottles of beer, but somehow, after my brush with mortality, everything looks fresher, more vivid, a little more alive.

“Congratulations, you’re not dead yet,” says Shinji, as we drive back to my hotel on the freeway, gliding over the rooftops of the city. For a minute or two, we drive along in a peaceful, even pleasant silence.

Then an idea occurs to me. “I’m hungry,” I say. “Let’s go get some dessert.”

To Die For