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My first bite of tora-fugu, the Japanese species of blowfish containing deadly poison in its organs, is the skin. The gelatinous delicacy is thinly sliced like noodles, with seaweed, grated daikon, and a ponzu sauce, and is part of Sushi Taro’s 10-course, $138 fugu tasting menu. I’m not dead yet.
Next up is sashimi, sliced paper-thin and fanned around the plate like petals on a flower. It’s again served with a ponzu sauce, which pairs with fugu like ketchup to fries. The raw, almost transluscent fish is accompanied by a grilled fugu tail-infused sake with an aroma of char and fish that fills your nostrils before you even take a sip of the hot liquid, which starts off smoky, creamy, and sweet, then finishes on a bitter note.
Over the course of the three-and-a-half-hour dinner, there’s also fried fugu, which requires you to gnaw the meat around the bony frame of the fish like chicken wings. The meal finishes with a fugu hot pot and then an umami-rich egg drop porridge with Japanese greens made with a fugu broth.
Only two restaurants in the D.C. area—Sushi Taro and Kaz Sushi Bistro—serve tora-fugu, which is in season from mid-December through March. There are more than 100 species of puffer fish, including some found in the mid-Atlantic, but the Japanese tora-fugu or tiger puffer fish is considered the most delicious—and most poisonous.
It is rare and expensive, but the main appeal, for American thrill-seeking foodies, is its aura of danger. The organs—primarily the liver and female eggs—contain tetrodotoxin, which is reportedly at least 1,000 times more deadly than cyanide. One wrong cut could result in poisoning, causing numbness and tingling in the victim’s mouth, trouble breathing, dizziness, paralysis, and ultimately, death. There is no known antidote.
But your sushi chef doesn’t really hold your fate in his hands, at least in this country. The lesser-known truth is that all tora-fugu in the U.S. is butchered in Japan and the toxins are removed before the fish ever hits American soil. “The fish they import is 100 percent safe,” says Kaz Sushi Bistro chef and owner Kaz Okochi. As far as anyone I spoke to knows, nobody has ever died of Japanese tora-fugu poisoning in the U.S. You have a far greater chance of getting sick from salmonella in an undercooked burger.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved only one supplier, Wako International Corp., to import tora-fugu. The company, whose president Nobuyoshi Kuraoka owns Restaurant Nippon in New York, then distributes it to “member” Japanese restaurants around the country, including Sushi Taro and Kaz Sushi Bistro. Kuraoka says he supplies only 30 establishments.
Tora-fugu hasn’t always been legal. Kuraoka spent five years trying to convince the FDA to allow imports, and in 1989, the agency allowed it under strict guidelines. The fish is cut and cleaned by veteran fugu handlers in a facility in Shimonoseki, the fugu capital of Japan, under the supervision of health inspectors. The meat, bones, and skin are broken down into separate parts and frozen before they’re shipped to the U.S. (At Sushi Taro, tora-fugu is the only fish that arrives frozen. Everything else is flown in fresh daily.)
To prepare the fish, chefs must receive a local government-sanctioned license. Every prefecture in Japan has its own certification test, which involves a written portion as well as a demonstration of proper butchering technique. Chefs must be able to identify the type of toxins, where they’re found, how to clean and cut the fish, and how to dispose of the poison parts (in a locked container, so dogs or other animals don’t get to it).
“The toxin part is not that difficult if you know how to cut the fish and you know which one is the liver, which blowfish has a huge liver,” says Okochi, who received a fugu certification in Japan in the 1980s. “Preparation, that is the harder part.” Structurally, blowfish is different from most other fish; like monkfish, fugu has a big skeleton instead of lots of thin bones. Slicing it super-thin and removing the spine and the skin takes a sharp knife and sharp skills.
Not all tora-fugu is poisonous. Another little fugu industry secret is that some of the fish is now farm-raised. And because its toxicity comes from its diet in the wild, the aquaculture variety is supposedly safe. (The FDA still requires the same precautions for all fugu.)
Both Sushi Taro and Kaz serve farm-raised tora-fugu. Does it taste different from the wild fish? Depends who you ask. Sushi Taro chef and owner Nobu Yamazaki says it’s harder to distinguish between farmed and wild-caught with a lean fish like fugu than with fattier species like salmon. “I can’t even taste the difference,” Yamazaki says. He prefers the farm-raised because the fish are consistent.
Sushiko co-owner Daisuke Utagawa, who does not serve fugu, says if you eat them side by side you can tell the difference straight away: Aquaculture fugu is fattier, but the fat is not as “elegant” as the wild variety. He also finds it doesn’t have the same natural sea flavor.
Different or not, even farm-raised tora-fugu isn’t cheap. At $100 per pound, it’s the most expensive fish on Sushi Taro’s menu. By contrast, fatty tuna is about $30 to $40 per pound. Even authentic Japanese wagyu beef is less expensive, at $80 to $90 a pound. Yamazaki’s 10-course menu (which includes some nonfugu dishes) is $138 per person with a two-person minimum. Some dishes are also available á la carte. Okochi charges $150 per person for his five-course fugu tasting menu, which is currently sold out.
Given the cost and difficulty of obtaining fugu in the U.S., actually eating it can be a letdown. Fugu has a very clean, subtle taste that’s almost flavorless. And instead of the melt-in-your-mouth richness of top sellers like salmon or fatty tuna, raw fugu is lean and tough and must be sliced paper-thin so it’s not too chewy. When cooked, it has a similar texture to chicken.
“I don’t want people spending $150 per person having the expectation of eating foie gras or truffles,” Okochi says. “It’s not like a ‘wow’ kind of thing. It’s good. A lot of Japanese appreciate that, and some Americans appreciate that, but it’s not for everybody.”
Yamazaki admits that even he was underwhelmed the first time he tried fugu. “I was like, ‘Hey, this is just a white fish; there’s nothing so special about it,’” he says. As he’s tried it more over the years, he says he’s built up an acquired taste for it. “It’s a really distinct flavor. The texture you can’t find from any other things. It’s subtle.”
The most prized part of the fish is shirako. Translation: sperm sac. “It’s very creamy, rich, and a little bit like an oyster or a sea urchin,” Yamazaki says. “It’s really a melt-in-your-mouth texture with a nice sweetness to it. It’s one of a kind.” Yamazaki says he gets the shirako in the second shipment of the season, which will probably be this month. He serves it simply, char-grilled with a little bit of salt. The dish is around $100 just by itself and is not listed on the menu. Some people ask for it and Yamazaki lets regular customers know if he has it.
Some people claim fugu causes a tingly sensation on the tongue, but Yamazaki and Okochi say that’s a myth. (Too much tingle, and you might be dead soon.) Yamazaki says he uses a little bit of chili in the ponzu sauce, which might be the source of the feeling. The first time I tried tora-fugu sushi at Sushi Taro, I felt the mysterious tingle, but I chalked it up to the dab of wasabi between the fish and the rice rather than impending doom. During the subsequent tasting menu, I felt no tingle.
Kuraoka of Restaurant Nippon also tells me trace amounts of the neurotoxin have certain mood-elevating effects. “As you eat, you feel joyful, you feel high,” he says. In fact, the fish is considered an aphrodisiac in Japanese culture.
“I think it’s the hot sake,” says Utagawa with a laugh. He’s not sure if fugu has a physiological effect or not. “The mere thought that it could be dangerous may give you that excitement,” he suggests. “Still a lot of things about fugu are not known.”
Euphoric or not, poisonous or not, sushi chefs don’t want to ruin the intrigue. Often what appeals to first-time American fugu eaters is the notion, however mistaken, that this meal could be their last. And though the chefs certainly won’t lie about how the fish is butchered safely back in Japan or that some fish might not even be poisonous to begin with, they don’t necessarily spell it out upfront.
“If people don’t ask,” Okochi says, “I don’t say.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery