Life and Death and Sushi
Life seems to bloom best on the edge of death’s yard. It’s why we jump out of planes, or casually date attractive sociopaths. It’s also the unique thrill of eating Japanese blowfish, commonly known as fugu.
Of the 120-plus species of the fish, tora fugu (tiger blowfish) is the ultimate delicacy, prized for its flavor and for its lethality. Wild fugu harbors the poison tetrodotoxin, a sodium blocker that’s a thousand times more deadly than cyanide. The toxin paralyzes your muscles—first lips, then tongue, then heart and lungs. It doesn’t cross the bloodstream-brain barrier, so you’re fully conscious, but physically paralyzed, when asphyxiation ushers you to the Great Sushi Bar in the Sky. To give you an idea of just how unassuming the poison is (outwardly, at least), the Japanese used to lay fugu-poisoned victims next to caskets for a few days to ensure they weren’t burying people alive.
One blowfish contains enough tetrodotoxin to kill 30 people, and a lethal dose of the poison for a full-grown man is no larger than a pinhead. Oh, and did we mention that there’s no known antidote? Despite this—not to mention the fact that the fare is banned in all 28 nations of the European Union—the danger of eating blowfish in a restaurant is a bit overblown. Significant steps are taken to ensure fugu is not your final meal. For export, specially trained Japanese experts remove the deadly parts from the edible flesh. (The fish’s poison is relegated to its skin, eyes, ovaries, sperm sac, and liver; so pass on any offers of fugu pâté.) The meat is then frozen and sent to New York, where it’s inspected again, then sold only to certified chefs.
A farmed species of fugu also exists—it’s raised on a toxin-free diet— but most certified chefs scoff at the neutered knockoff. As do we. After all, fugu itself isn’t known to have a distinctive flavor—connoisseurs call it “delicate” and “clean”—so if it also lacks an element of danger, what really then is the point?
“We grew up eating fugu as a staple in Hawaii—liver, sperm sacs, everything,” says Blaine "Sumo" Sato, a fisherman and consultant chef in San Diego. “My uncles would break it down into tiny pieces and make a soup. It would warm you up. Not a temperature heat, but a sensation heat from the poison. That’s the appeal.”
Ah, warming-sensation, poisonous sushi. If that sounds like a well thought-out Saturday night to you, then you’ll want to head to one of the following restaurants during fugu season, which runs from November to the end of March:
Ame at the St. Regis in San Francisco serves hirezaki, a traditional drink of dried blowfish fin steeped in hot sake.
At Seattle’s Shiki Japanese Restaurant, chef-owner Ken Yamamoto serves fugu sashimi and fugu-nabe (soup).
Kaz Sushi Bistro, in Washington D.C., offers a fugu smorgasbord ($175 prix fixe) that includes soup, sushi, fried fugu, egg roll, risotto and dessert.
If you want our advice, we suggest a multi-course feast. After all, if the thrill is death-defiance, why not amortize the rush over an entire night?