‚ÄúFugu‚Äù is the Japanese word for puffer fish – a rare, infamous delicacy that claims the lives of about five people a year. It‚Äôs deadly if prepared wrong, but the risk is rumoured to be worth it for the bittersweet, hypnotic flavour;¬†a once in a lifetime experience (for some).
My girlfriend and I were about to visit Tokyo. We had this one chance to taste fugu and we had to seize it. But we lost something very dear that day.
This is that story‚Ä¶
Tokyo‚Äôs an incredible city – vast, pulsating, and totally impenetrable to an outsider. Street names (if you can find them) are all in Japanese. Train lines connecting different suburbs are owned by different companies, run on different tracks and require change-overs and tickets from different offices. From the moment you arrive, you‚Äôre lost.
You can almost get yourself to a place you‚Äôre looking for if you walk: turn on Google maps and follow the instructions as carefully as you can. But data is frighteningly expensive, and as you get SMS notifications telling you you‚Äôve spent R2000, then R3500, then R7000 you realise it‚Äôs a last resort.
I arrived in Tokyo a few days before Mari and started searching for fugu restaurants, hoping to get a booking for our first night in the city together.
I found nothing.
After hours of walking, jumping train lines, miming for directions in clumsy sign language and walking some more, I‚Äôd arrive at a destination only to have the dot on Google maps literally disappear. Then reappear a few blocks away only to disappear again.
I‚Äôd get off at a train station and run out of data. I‚Äôd actually find a restaurant and it would be closed.
Once I was even seated in a booth before the waiter confessed that they‚Äôd never served fugu (but they did have American wine).
I felt like the universe was keeping me from some extraordinary secret and that each refusal was a test.
Finding this fish became an obsession.
Mari arrived and the trip took on a different tone. We were travelling with friends and there was so much we had to fit in before our six days together in Tokyo were up. But in karaoke bars, clubs, arcades, museums and galleries, the spectre of this unclaimed meal haunted every conversation.
‚ÄúHave you tasted Fugu yet?‚Äù
‚ÄúPlease, how does it taste?‚Äù
I managed to embroil Mari in the obsession, allaying her fear elicited by the poison articles from the Japanese tourism board. We were going to do this thing.
We searched. We called. We hunted. We begged. We got placed on mile-long waiting lists. And finally (FINALLY!) we found an opening.
There was a last-minute cancellation at one of a chain of fugu restaurants ‚Äì a group that (according to its flashy website) was legendary throughout Japan.
We were offered a 45-minute slot and were told that we would not be allowed to languish afterwards.
We took it gratefully.
Mari shrieked, ‚ÄúEk wil nooit in ‚Äôn vuil pentie dood nie! (I won‚Äôt to be found dead in a dirty pair of panties!)‚Äù as she put down the phone. And we laughed and did laundry and got dressed up.
“As we waited for the food I was reminded of all of the stories I’d read online about people dying in fugu restaurants…”
As we confirmed with our taxi driver again and again and again that he had the right address, a fear dawned that was greater than the fear that this would again be a failed attempt. We might actually get fugu. And what if we were poisoned?
There are over 120 different kinds of puffer fish in the world and all of them are poisonous. Their skin, livers and ovaries are riddled with a venom so deadly there‚Äôs enough in a single fish to kill off 30 adults.
And it isn‚Äôt a pleasant death either. The poison shuts down the connection between brain, lungs and diaphragm, leaving the victim to suffocate silently in a helpless, paralysed body. There‚Äôs no known cure or treatment for the poison. That, of course, is part of the reason it‚Äôs such a sought after delicacy. It‚Äôs the ultimate in decadence, not just for the rare, exquisite flavour, but because it is to pay to brush with death.
A Disneyland for mortality.
By the time we arrived this had all started to feel like a mindless, arrogant indulgence. A pointless risk. But we‚Äôd come this far and there was no going back.
We were seated in a tight little booth and we were reminded again that we had just 45 minutes to finish and leave. We ordered quickly: The set menu – a chance to eat every part of the fish.
As we waited for the food I was reminded of all of the stories I’d read online about people dying in fugu restaurants ‚Äì tourists, usually. I remembered the symptoms: an initial tingling of the lips followed by a tightening of the chest and throat.
“Was this what death looked like? How humiliating.”
To distract myself I started really looking at the place we were in, focussing on the details. And for the first time I noticed the tacky gilding, the tightly packed booths, the waitresses in matching nylon uniforms. All around us were wall-to-wall tanks of cartoonish puffers – all tiny fins and ridiculous googly eyes. Was this what death looked like? How humiliating.
The first course arrived: Sashimi ‚Äì raw, paper-thin, carved by an expert chef who trains for years before he can even legally handle the fish. It was served with a light soy and fresh lime dressing.
Before we‚Äôd taken a bite another waiter appeared to prepare the next dish at our table – a light miso broth with a fish so fresh its skinned head was still gasping for air on the platter.
Again, before we had a moment to take this in, the final dish arrived. The skin – an organ riddled with poison glands which is notoriously difficult to prepare. It was shredded into thin slices; deep-fried, and generously dusted with cayenne pepper.
We didn‚Äôt have long to eat. Our 45 minutes were almost up and the bill arrived as we were still considering the first course.
I paid the eye-watering bill and was allowed a moment of quiet reflection. The sashimi was tougher than expected, almost the texture of raw squid ‚Äì sweet, chewy and unremarkable. The soup, despite the gory display, was mild and unmemorable. The fish inside could have been anything. And the cayenne pepper on the skin led your lips to tingle ‚Äì an almost comical reminder of why we were here.
Moments later we were hurried out into the cold night air to make room for the next round of thrill seekers.
I could still feel a slight tingle in my lips. Then tightening in my throat and a growing pain in my chest.
But it wasn‚Äôt poison.
It was disappointment.
Joshua De Kock is a copywriter, food lover and travel enthusiast who would rather be diving for crayfish.
Photography by Alix-Rose Cowie