Last night he and I ate Fugu,
Today, I help carry his coffin
-- Japanese senryu verse
The ultimate edible for wealthy Japanese is a funny-looking fish, the tiger fugu. A member of the family of puffer fishes, its silky white flesh is a prized delicacy -- and each bite is a thrill.
A fugu dinner in Japan can cost $200 per person, but you get more than a fish dinner. You get a work of art and a rush of danger from knowing that the ovaries and liver of the fugu are deadly poisonous. They contain tetrodotoxin, a lightning-fast poison 275 times more deadly than cyanide, and there is no antidote.
Species of the puffer are found all over the globe and known also as blowfish, porcupine fish or globefish. In the presence of danger they can gulp air or water into a sac in the belly and balloon up to three times their size to discourage predators.
Now there is a ballooning fuss over fugu that is reverberating from an island in Japan, to a restaurant in New York, through law offices in New York and Washington, the Brooklyn laboratory of a Chinese toxin expert for the State University of New York (SUNY), and into the bureaucracy at the Food and Drug Administration in Washington.
This is not an issue that is going to touch many lives, but there is enough legend, poetry and mystique about the poisonous puffers to keep the subject surfacing in news stories and in our pop culture.
Garry Trudeau, comic strip creator of "Doonesbury," recently wrote about the zombie state of Duke, ascribing his condition to the poison of a puffer fish; mystery writer James Melville used fugu toxin for a bizarre murder; Ian Fleming's hero James Bond beat the odds and survived after a near-fatal dose of fugu toxin: "It comes from the Japanese globefish," a neurologist tells Bond's boss. "It's terrible stuff and very quick."
Triggering the current fuss is Nobuyoshi Kuraoka, owner of the Nippon, a highly praised New York restaurant on East 52nd Street that is considered the grandfather of the New York sushi restaurants. Like many of his countrymen, Kuraoka missed his fugu and spent five years attempting to get the Japanese fugu syndicate and the Japanese government to permit tiger fugu to be exported to him.
Elated when that came through, he could hardly wait to get it on his menu, explaining to people that there is no poison on the skin, meat or testicles of the tiger fugu, and joking: "Through my experience it is a strong aphrodisiac. We'll probably be asking the husbands' permission before we let their wives order it."
Although banned by the FDA since 1980, several boxes of tiger fugu passed customs last September. Kuraoka prepared a feast for a select 30. Flown in to do the honors was Sakae Hata, the dean of Japanese fugu chefs. Invited to join the inaugural tasting were Japan's Consul General Hidetoshi Ukawa, Japanese businessmen and New York reporters. They were served a fugu casserole and sashimi sliced in diamond shapes and arranged in beautiful designs -- the fish so paper-thin the exquisite patterns of the Japanese plate glowed through the delicate slices.
The reporters then bit the hand that fed them. "Aren't you dying to try Japanese fugu?" was one headline. "They lived to talk about it" said another, in the Daily News.
This understandably captured the attention of the FDA, which promptly quarantined the rest of the $4,000 shipment in freezers at the New York Port Authority and ordered it returned to Japan within 60 days.
Kuraoka was distraught. He felt the FDA had missed a crucial point in its zeal to protect Americans from a fish that has killed 200 Japanese in the past 10 years.
He marshaled lawyers and a medical expert and flew back to Japan to gather evidence to convince the FDA that the fugu he is importing is safe.
There is no argument that fugu kills. But there have been no restaurant deaths in Japan for more than 10 years. The deaths have been attributed to eating fugu cleaned by amateurs; deliberate suicide; and a form of Japanese roulette in which the diner persuades the chef to serve a "chiri," a bootleg stew of the skins, livers, intestines and testicles.
A Japanese news correspondent in Washington explained that some fugu aficionados are seeking a high in the form of euphoria and a tingling paralysis of the mouth, tongue and lips, "and that is what they enjoy. It is an addiction to danger, pushing to the edge of death. They want to enjoy it a lttle more, and a little more." Since the toxin has a cumulative effect, they can have one serving too many.
Japanese fish wholesalers and restaurant chefs who handle fugu are tightly regulated and highly trained. Chefs apprentice for two years, take an exam and then prepare a plate of sashimi through the 30 steps prescribed by law. An expert can do a fish in 20 minutes.
There are more than 100 species of fugu, and they vary in toxicity. Tiger fugu is considered the safest, and Kuraoka is trying to convince the FDA it is safe. The flesh is nonpoisonous, the other parts are left behind in Japan. "The headlines were too sensational," he moans.
Dr. C.Y. Kao, a SUNY neurosciences professor and the leading U.S. authority on tetrodotoxin poisons, has taken the side of the importer. "Prudence on the side of over-caution is the appropriate initial step for the FDA ," he wrote recently, but went on to quote the leading Japanese toxicologist on puffer fishes, the late I. Tani, who was unable to find a single case of poisoning attributable to the consumption of flesh or skin of the tiger fugu.
Kao goes on to say that even if toxins were accidentally introduced on the flesh of the fish they could be removed by washing with water.
But the FDA is standing firm. Raymond Newberry of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition says the ban will stay in effect "until they can prove it is safe, and they can't do that. There is no way to prove every fish is free of the toxin. It is not uniform, there could be a contaminant, and there is no analytic method to detect a contaminant."
And Newberry adds, "Why isn't it served in the emperor's house?"
Kuraoka's attorney in Washington, Richard Nacewicz, who was formerly with the FDA, says, "I think they are taking a hard-nose position and they're dead wrong. The fish meets all the qualifications and is packed under supervision."
The impounded shipment arrived with examination certificates from the chief of the Fukuoka inspection station certifying the shipment free of contamination; and from the governor of Yamaguchi prefecture certifying there had been no deaths from tiger fugu muscle, skin, bone, testicle or fin.
The final option for Kuraoka is the courtroom if he can't convince the FDA of his evidence.
What's so wonderful about tiger fugu? It is so mild and unfishy it has virtually no taste, according to a Japanese here. It's a little gummy as you chew it, but very smooth, delicate and mysterious.
Noel D. Vietmeyer, after tasting his first fugu, wrote in National Geographic (August 1984): "Strangely I feel no danger, but with every bite I sense the thrill. The meat has no fiber; it's almost like gelatin. It is very light in taste, there is only the slightest hint that it is a seafood."
Fugu restaurants open in Japan in September and close again at the end of March when the season ends. They are popular with the rich and famous, the Japanese busnessmen, the music and film stars. For several reasons, to be entertained at a fugu restaurant is the ultimate compliment in Japan. Fugu is very expensive, it is found only in Japan (and Korea), and it is becoming scarce but is now being grown in aquaculture.
Often the entire meal involves fugu. The intricately carved designs of sashimi are served with soy sauce, grated daikon, sliced scallions and vinegar (but not wasabi, the green horseradish that is usually served with sashimi). This could be followed by a casserole dish called shabu-shabu with the fugu in chunks in a chicken broth with grilled bean curd, mushrooms, leeks and greens. A delicious favorite is grilled fugu fins dipped in warm sake.
What is the closest most of us will get to fugu thrill? Well, there is a north Atlantic blowfish that appears in the fish markets occasionally under the euphemism sea squab or chicken of the sea. Most fish manuals point out the toxic nature of puffer fishes and caution the fish should be thoroughly skinned and stripped of all viscera. But the FDA does not restrict each North Atlantic puffer as "inherently" poisonous as it does the Japanese puffer. There have been no cases of poisoning from the North Atlantic puffer, according to the FDA. CHIRINABE (Fish and Vegetable Casserole) (4 servings)
This recipe is very similar to those for the fugu casseroles served in Japan after the fugu sashimi course. Any good fresh firm fish can be used in this classic Japanese dish.
FOR THE DIPPING SAUCE:
1/2 cup light soy sauce
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup water
FOR THE BROTH:
5 cups fish or chicken stock
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin
2 tablespoons sake or dry white wine
FOR THE SOUP:
1 pound fish chunks, cut into 2-inch squares, either sea squab, monkfish, dolphin or shark
3/4 pound Chinese cabbage, cut into 3-inch pieces
6 scallions, cut diagonally into 3-inch pieces
6 large mushrooms, sliced
16-ounce block firm tofu, cut into 1-inch squares
FOR THE CONDIMENTS:
4-inch section of thick portion of white daikon radish, grated and combined with 1/4 teaspoon red pepper
Combine dipping sauce ingredients. Divide among 4 individual sauce bowls.
Combine broth ingredients in a saucepan and heat to a boil.
Place soup ingredients in a flameproof casserole. Pour over the boiling broth and continue to simmer until fish is just done, 3 to 5 minutes. Place casserole in center of dining table. Each guest has a soup bowl and a bowl of dipping sauce. Have on the table the grated daikon and red pepper, plus extra soy sauce and lemon juice so each diner can adjust the dipping sauce to taste.
Guests serve themselves fish and vegetables, dipping each bite into sauce. Remaining broth is divided among the soup bowls and drunk as broth. Serve with rice.