A meal to die for

Every year, dozens of Japanese diners drop dead after eating the world's most poisonous poisson: fugu. So we asked Andrew Spooner to take the taste test. Would he end up swimming with the fishes?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It begins with a numbness spreading through the lips, tongue and mouth. The muscles in the body then start to spasm involuntarily and the throat swells. Within minutes mental faculties are severely impaired, the ability to speak is lost and the skin turns blue. In extreme cases blackout occurs within 30 minutes and death can follow soon after. At this point, if you are lucky enough to be able to figure out what is going on, you'll probably be thinking - "Damn, I knew I should've had the meat."

It begins with a numbness spreading through the lips, tongue and mouth. The muscles in the body then start to spasm involuntarily and the throat swells. Within minutes mental faculties are severely impaired, the ability to speak is lost and the skin turns blue. In extreme cases blackout occurs within 30 minutes and death can follow soon after. At this point, if you are lucky enough to be able to figure out what is going on, you'll probably be thinking - "Damn, I knew I should've had the meat."

I don't normally contemplate death when setting out for a spot of fine dining, but today is different. I'm searching the backstreets of Tokyo's plush Ginza district for a top-end eaterie known as the Wa Na Fu Club. It's famous among Tokyo's elite for serving up the best-prepared, best quality cuts of the legendary Japanese delicacy, fugu - or, as we refer to it, blowfish.

It's one of the strangest food fetishes in a land filled with strange food. Fugu is incredibly toxic, and unless it is prepared with exacting precision, it can kill you in moments. Deadly tetrodotoxins - one of the most powerful toxins known to man - infest their vital organs. It is hundreds of times more powerful than cyanide and an infinitesimally small amount causes a rapid demise.

It's thought the fugu get contaminated from the huge amounts of shellfish they consume and although only 60 per cent of fugu contain this deadly poison, without sending their organs off for testing, there's no way of telling which do and which don't. Yet the Japanese, eager for thrills, hoover up fugu by the ton and, every year, an average of 100 diners die as a result. With fugu blood, heart, liver and testes all containing deadly tetrodotoxin, one can only hope the chef at Wa Na Fu knows what he is doing.

"Each chef has to have a licence and is educated in fugu preparation for one year," says Yumiko-san, the general manager and head chef. "That's followed by two more years of training and a final exam. It is a very long and thorough process."

Legends persist of diners specifically requesting fish laced with a minuscule amount of poison, just enough to numb the lips and allow them to flirt dangerously with the possibility of death. All highly illegal of course. While the myths surrounding fugu are potent, the history of this deadly feast are shrouded in mystery.

"It probably started in the Edo period, sometime between 1600 and 1868," explains Alex Kerr, noted Japanologist and author of Lost Japan. "Edo was an era of incredibly elaborate and extravagant fashions, where everybody was engaged in a huge game of one-upmanship," he says. "Food played an absolutely central part in the fashions of the day and fugu would probably have been the ultimate chic in dining."

Once the very height of decadence, fugu has recently started to be considered a little bohemian. These days it's eaten by artists, Yakuza gangsters, Kabuki theatre actors and Japanese yuppies. Yumiko-san has also noticed a younger, more fashionable crowd, coming in to order his killer fish. "Most fugu restaurants attract an older, more traditional crowd," he says. "Here, at Wa Na Fu, we are more contemporary. We are trying to attract a younger, modern customer. It is proving very successful."

I arrive in the steamy kitchen at the same time as two writhing fugu, set on a shiny metal dish, are handed to the waiting chef. "We like to serve it as fresh as possible" says Yumiko-san as the chef grabs one of the cuddly looking fugu and ends its life with a sharp blow to the head. He then starts expertly cutting off the fins. "We keep these to mix with sake," says Yumiko-san. With dexterous expertise, the chef then skins the fish, exposing the succulent monkfish-like flesh beneath. He then removes the smooth, scaleless fugu epidermis in one final, sharp tug.

Next the disembowelling and filleting process starts in earnest. First, the huge buttery liver is removed and placed on a separate dish. "This is the most toxic organ in its body," says Yumiko-san. The chef then takes out the fugu's tiny, still-beating heart, with a swish of his glinting blade and swiftly dispatches the other potentially lethal organs to join the liver. The spine and bones are removed in one brisk action and the chef is ready to slice the fugu into wafer-thin sashimi.

"There has never been even the mildest case of fugu poisoning associated with this restaurant," says Yumiko-san reassuringly as I sit down for lunch. Each piece is delicately arranged as a single petal on a large plate. The finished product resembles a glistening, gelatinous chrysanthemum - hardly enticing but certainly a work of art. It's then ceremoniously placed on the table along with ponzu (a crisp blend of soy, rice vinegar and lime), raw shallots and rice. I wonder where the nearest hospital is as I pick up a piece of fugu sashimi and dip it in the ponzu.

I expect a flavour to die for, but if I were being kind, I'd say that fugu is a subtle melange of nutty flavours imbued with a hint of corn-fed chicken. If I were to be unkind, I'd say it was insipid, the texture glutinous and rubbery and, given the death-defying somersaults of both diner and chef, a risk too far. The ponzu, rice and shallots add some distinction, Yumiko-san's service is faultless and everything is beautifully presented. This meal costs 10,000 yen (about £50) but prices start from a more modest 6,000 yen (roughly £30).

The practice of deliberately eating something that may terminate the diner's life seems to be a uniquely Japanese pastime. Sure, there are Amazonian tribes people who feast on poisonous roots for their psychoactive properties; Aleister Crowley and his pals were famed for tucking into the odd plate of belladonna; even I can confess to gorging on toxic Fly Agaric and Psilocybin mushrooms in the hunt for cheap thrills. But, as anyone who has ever gagged down a fistful of magic mushrooms will know, this could never be considered fine dining.

"The only time I feared that imminent death awaited," says food writer Kevin Gould, "was when I'd ordered a plate of sheep brains masala at a streetside dabha in the bazaar in Old Delhi. But they turned out to be quite delicious."

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