The Deadly Blowfish: Last Meal in Tokyo?

Blowfish expert Katsuhiko Iizuka eats his dinner  --  carefully  --  at Tokyo's Tentake restaurant.
Blowfish expert Katsuhiko Iizuka eats his dinner -- carefully -- at Tokyo's Tentake restaurant. (By David Nakamura -- The Washington Post)
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006

Death on a plate arrives in so many shapes and textures and pretty arrangements that for a moment I forget this meal can kill me.

But soon my mind snaps back to attention. On the second floor of the Tokyo restaurant Tentake, I inspect a marinated lump of fish topped with a hot pepper-radish sauce, grab it with my chopsticks and, with a quick internal prayer and my mother's pleading admonitions in my ear, take my life in my hands. I have a bite . . .

* * *

Ah, wondrous, dangerous, insidious blowfish.

The name alone strikes fear into Americans, and for good reason. Blowfish contains tetrodotoxin, a potent neurotoxin that shuts down electrical signaling in nerves and kills within hours. But to the Japanese, blowfish, known here as fugu, is a culinary delicacy, a pricey meal to be enjoyed during special occasions -- say a goodbye party for a friend or an outing with coworkers.

I first ate fugu during a year teaching English in Hiroshima, when I was invited to a teachers' party. My Jewish mother, when I told her of the pending outing, begged me over the phone not to attend. "Can't you just sit there and, uh, watch ?" she asked.

By the time I arrived at the hotel, most of my fellow teachers were already tipsy on sake and beer and, when I voiced objections to eating fugu, they looked at me with a mix of scorn and pity. With a strange lightheadedness, I sat down and proceeded to sample one dish after another. Fugu wasn't the main course, it was the only course: raw, boiled, fried, marinated.

To the relief of my mother, but perhaps not my students, I survived -- and vowed to someday try fugu again, when I would be less afraid and more able to appreciate the flavor.

Tokyo has by some accounts between 700 and 800 certified blowfish restaurants, and I don't use the word "certified" lightly. At Tentake, one needed look no further than the walls to see framed certificates for eight chefs who had passed a rigorous licensing exam to prepare and serve the fugu courses.

A few days before my meal, I was permitted as a journalist to observe a training seminar at Tokyo's famed Tsukiji fish market for apprentice chefs learning to dissect the fish and remove the poison, carefully discarding the remains in special bags that are sent to a central incinerator.

The fugu house is a nondescript white building deep in the bowels of the market. A red-lettered sign on the door warns of the danger inside.

Blowfish three ways.
Blowfish three ways.(David Nakamura)
Upon entering, you are surrounded by knives -- and poison. A dozen young apprentices dressed in white smocks and hats are learning to dissect the fugu under the attentive gaze of a half dozen middle-aged instructors. Two health inspectors observe silently from one corner. In another, fugu wholesalers association union director Katsuhiko Iizuka, 75, a good-humored man with thick dock-worker hands, sits on a stool smoking Caster cigarettes.

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