The lugubrious waiter carefully arranges the fish and vegetables in a table-top pot. It is a silent, solemn ceremony fit for a last supper. “If you should start to feel numb,” he confides, gesturing to his fingertips and lips, “Then … I apologise if this is rather indelicate … it is said that eating human faeces may help save you.”
In the big ceramic bowl, the beancurd, the enokitake mushrooms and Chinese cabbage begin to bubble in the broth along with creamy sacs of sperm and bony bits of of the centrepiece of our dinner.
Eventually, kneeling on the tatami in our little private room, we fossick in the bowl. We decline the zosui rice gruel mixed with the remains that traditionally finishes the banquet.
But you really have to try what is unarguably the world’s most dangerous dinner, don’t you – the repulsively ugly Japanese fugu fish, which puffs up into a spiky ball when angry, so its English name is swellfish or porcupinefish.
And you couldn’t pick a better place than Osaka, which fancies itself as the Lyon of Japan, nor a safer noren (traditional restaurant) than Kitahachi, down a yellow-brick arcade in the suburb of Kishiwada.
The current chef/proprietor, Kiichi Kitahama, 65, and his late father have been slicing and serving up fugu to gourmets from far and wide since 1913 -they claim theirs is the oldest fugu restaurant in Japan. And they haven’t had to try the faeces on a single customer yet, boasts Mr Kitahama.
Others, however, have not been so careful – or so lucky.
Since records were first kept in 1886, fugu fish have killed 6,925 Japanese. Mr Kitahama, an international authority, who has a museum across the road dedicated to the fugu, points out an exhibit – two tiny red-capped vials, each containing perhaps a teaspoon-full of white powder. One is potassium cyanide, enough to kill 20 people; the other the fugu’s tetrodotoxin venom, which would kill 20,000.
The most famous victim was Bando Mitsugoro, one of the greatest kabuki actors and a “living national treasure” who in 1975 devoured four portions of fugu liver, declaring to his wife: “It was so delicious I feel like I am floating on air”.
He died that night. The Kyoto restaurant chef was given a suspended sentence for professional negligence.
The liver and the ovaries are the deadliest part of the fish – although even the fins, which are dried and toasted and served in a beaker of hot sake, can make your lips tingle, the first sign of the nerve poison going to work.
Mr Kitahama himself – though he says he won’t serve it to customers – has eaten fugu liver many times. “It feels as if the flavour is spearing through the top of your brains,” is his verdict. I am content to take his word for it.
The Japanese authorities have been trying for centuries to get people to act sensibly about fugu. The shoguns banned people from eating it altogether, on pain of death.
More recently, strict rules were enforced, prohibiting the eating of fugu liver, regulating varieties that can be consumed (more than 100 have been identified, one named after Mr Kitahama), and a tough two-year course on surgical dissection of the poisonous parts to obtain a special licence.
Even so, two or three people die each year. And in a country where a plate of sushi can cost $A75, what they charge for fugu is breathtaking.
Since the “bubble economy” burst four years ago, prices at the markets at Shimonoseki on Japan’s western tip, where bids are signalled to the auctioneer by hand signals inside a black cloth bag, have dropped by more than half.
That brings the cost of a prime wild orange-and-green-striped “tiger” fugu down to $A240 a kilo. Farmed fugu is a mere $A70, but Mr Kitahama turns his nose up at them, claiming they taste of sardines instead of lobster or crab as they should, because of their diet.
The prices at Kitahachi make Tokyo gourmets gasp at their modesty. There are dishes as cheap as $30 or $40, though, if you want the full disaster of a kaiseki-style set course, it will cost anything from $200 to $400 a head.
So what does it taste like? A typical array of dishes will include many parts of the fish you have never imagined were edible – the throat, the backbones fried crisp like crackers, an aemono dish of intestines set on a shiso leaf, overnight-dried sperm, several different ways with the skin. The highlight is the flesh, thinly sliced, crunchy and translucent. The piece de resistance is the presentation of a whole raw hakofugu, a special kind of fugu served only here. It sits in a bed of seaweed on a porcelain pedestal. Everyone who orders it gets a numbered certificate.
“Turn your hakofugu upside down … use a single chopstick, thrust its pointed end softly into the caudal area, move it forward to the direction of the head along by the vertebra, scraping off the dorsel muscles on both sides…” says the instruction card.
All this skin and bone and gristle is heavily reliant on the accessories -a sauce of red salted plums, a dip of ponzu, a mixture of soy sauce and the juice of a daidai (a sort of citron).
I prescribe as much sake as you can swallow. I hate to say it, so I’ll let Mr Kitahama do the obituary: “Fugu is basically a big lump of collagen.”
Pub date: Tuesday 29 March 1994
Section: Good Living
Word count: 972
Photo: Mayu Kanamori
Caption: Dine or shine … Kiichi Kitahama with a fugu fish made into a lantern