Eating The Fish That Kills

!1(MORGAN DUNN … THE Australian)  I realised I had been poisoned immediately after swallowing the fish. My heart started hammering, a flush rushed through me and I felt as though I were slowly pulling backwards out of my body. At the door, out of the corner of my eye, I could see a shinigami (god of death) and I realised I was going to die, right here, on the floor of a sushi restaurant in rural Niigata. O true sushi master, thy drugs are quick.

But my heartbeat slowed, my breath came back and the spinning room settled down. Moreover, I saw that the shinigami wasn’t on any official business but had popped in for a plate of sashimi and a cold beer.

I had survived, but more than that, I felt cleansed, purified. Alive.

Fugu masters, who have undertaken years of disciplined training and passed a rigorous examination process to receive a licence to serve the tasty but deadly Japanese pufferfish, will often dab the tiniest drop of poison on their patron’s fish. Not enough to kill but enough to excite. And it is the ultimate thrill.

At the time of my first tasting, my terror was genuine; I had no idea of this practice and although the danger that comes with eating fugu has been greatly exaggerated, people do die from ingesting the poison. Usually, though, this happens only when the fish has been prepared domestically by some brave soul. In a restaurant setting it is almost unheard of. Almost.

The most famous case of fugu poisoning was that of renowned kabuki actor and Japanese national living treasure Bando Mitsugoro VII, who in 1975 in a Kyoto restaurant ate not one fugu liver (considered to be the most delicious but deadliest part) but four. He died several hours later, having suffered the severe convulsions and paralysis that the poison, tetradoxin, induces. More recently, in 2011, a two-Michelin-starred chef was fined after one of his customers was admitted to hospital after requesting that she be fed the liver; the delicacy has been banned since the 1980s. But don’t let the doom and gloom deter you: a meal at a fugu restaurant is quite the treat.

On Christmas night last year, my Japanese homestay sister from a decade earlier and I were sitting at the counter of a small fugu restaurant. We had exchanged presents and, armed with a sweating mug of beer each for courage, were contemplating our first dish, fugu sashimi.

“You go first,” says Minori, staring down at the flower of translucent slices of fish that circled outwards from the centre of the plate; she has never tried it.

The fish is delicate, but there’s rusticity to it, something unpolished and meaty. A squeeze of kabosu, a Japanese citrus fruit, adds the fragrance of lime blossom and a sourness that calms the slight textural chewiness, while a pile of freshly grated daikon mixed with chilli, the colour of changing autumn leaves, peps the sashimi up with spice and earthiness.

The hostess brings over a portable flame grill and sets it on the table with a plate of generous, gelatinous chunks of fugu, and when it’s hot enough we barbecue our fish with elongated chopsticks.

The fish this time is almost unrecognisable as seafood. The smoke and fire have rendered its fleshiness more palpable, and it is rich and gamy, almost like rabbit with an almost imperceptible dash of fishy oiliness.

Fugu nabe is next. A hot pot flavoured with konbu simmers on the counter and we poach our fugu before eating it, the flesh flaking away on the palate into umami-infused pieces that are as fragile as the Japanese economy.

To finish, rice and spring onion are scooped into the fugu-flavoured poaching liquid by our hostess, and although we are toasty from the beer, the richness of the stew is warmly invigorating.

And then the meal is over. The most dangerous part? Spilling some of the hot nabe on my jeans.

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