National: Blowfish’s Power In Its Poisonous Reputation

After reading about the seven Japanese diners who went to the hospital after consuming ineptly prepared fugu (blowfish sushi) we immediately wanted to try it for ourselves. After all, even if you get a bad piece, you still have a 50 percent chance of survival, according to Suite 101’s Gourmet Food, so how dangerous can it be?

Dangerous enough, apparently, that they make it very hard to get ahold of in the United States. Only a small handful of restaurants serve the stuff, and they get it through an arduous certification process described by Adam Platt, food critic for our parent publication, New York, in a recent article:

Restaurants serving blowfish in this country must buy it from a single Food and Drug Administration–approved supplier, Wako International, which imports all the fugu sold in the United States. The imported fugu is cleaned in a processing plant in Shimonoseki, in southwestern Japan, by workers with a decade or more of experience in this delicate craft. The meat is then inspected and frozen for its flight across the Pacific. By the time it arrives in New York (where it’s inspected again), the fish is probably less toxic than a piece of mercury-saturated tuna sushi at your local Korean deli.

Of course, most restaurants stateside don’t seem to be interested heavily in promoting their fugu service. After all, where would all that publicity that leave the mystique? Probably not nearly as dear.

A writer for Seattle’s The Stranger expressed ambivalence toward the stuff after eating it at Shiki, Washington State’s only licensed Fugu restaurant. “I wanted to try fugu in the first place because, well, I wanted to see if it was worth the gamble. It’s not,” Min Liao wrote in 2002. Though in light of Platt’s description of the Fugu-importing process, it doesn’t seem like much of a gamble.

Platt, though, who ate the real, deadly stuff at a Tokyo fugu restaurant, was also less than impressed with the pure taste: “Hashimoto’s fugu indeed has a certain clean sashimi quality to it, and a resilient chewiness, but otherwise it’s a letdown. It tastes flavorless and gummy, like a cross between Reichl’s fluke and day-old squid.”

Last May, the New York Times reported on a new project in fugu production: Puffer fish bred to be non-lethal. It’s no surprise that fugu purists are fiercely against that idea. And for good reason. If the taste is really as underwhelming as the critics state, then the thrill of the thing is the real attraction. And that’s what our seven Japanese friends seem to have been after when they walked into an unlicensed Tsuruoka restaurant, and came out on stretchers. It’s unclear from the article whether they knew the chef had no license to prepare fugu, but it’s pretty certain the diners were looking for an experience more daring than a normal Tuesday-night dinner. And they got it.

Blowfish poisoning sends 7 to hospital in Japan [Salon/AP]
Fugu - A Dish to Die For [Suite 101/Gourmet Food]
Taste Your Fate: Restaurants That Serve Fugu [NPR]

To Die For [New York]
Shiki: Hooray I’m Not Dead [The Stranger]
If the Fish Liver Can’t Kill, Is It Really a Delicacy? [New York Times]

[Photo: Via jetalone/flickr]

National: Blowfish’s Power In Its Poisonous Reputation