A LA CARTER
Last week, I ate the deadliest fish in the world.
Fugu, also known as blowfish or puffer, can kill within the hour if it is
not properly cleaned and prepared. Despite its reputation for peril, it is
highly prized because it is a sweet and delicious fish.
On Long Island, only one restaurant is licensed to sell fugu, Shiro of
offer fugu, this month only, because the seasonal supply is limited. (Ishikawa
and his partners also own Taiko in Rockville Centre, and in the past, fugu has
been offered there.)
"There is a money-back guarantee," Ishikawa said with a puckish grin,
before I sampled Shiro's five-course, $150 fugu menu. "If you die, I give you
money back." Clearly, he was confident enough about it to kid around.
"Nobody died yet," Ishikawa added.
If things do go wrong, it is said that after the first half an hour the
victim begins to go numb and blood pressure plummets. The poison causes the
central nervous system to shut down. Although the victim remains conscious and
aware of what is happening, it is a particularly cruel death; those who are
about to die cannot speak, because the vocal cords are paralyzed.
None of that happened to me.
In the lush, skylit garden room of Shiro, I ate delicate, transparently
thin pieces of fugu sashimi, served on a sky blue plate so that they looked
almost like small clouds, served with a ponzu dipping sauce made with soy and
sudachi, a Japanese citrus fruit similar to a lime. After that came a sumptuous
array of sushi with fugu and other delicacies, including excellent fatty toro,
the prized tuna belly.
Next came a platter containing chunks of broiled fluke in a foie gras
sauce, broiled oysters in garlic sauce, crisp-fried fugu skin curled around a
scallop. Then there were fried pieces of the fish skeleton. That was followed
by techiri nabemono, a fugu broth in which pieces of the fish were cooked at
the table with enoki, shiitake and other mushrooms; mizuna, an Asian green, and
other vegetables, as well as tofu. (The meal is normally served in the serene,
private tatami rooms downstairs, but upon request can be served in the garden
room, which is decorated with petrified wood and stone brought from Japan.)
Last, a grilled fin of the fish is briefly steeped in hot sake, the potent
Japanese wine made from highly polished rice grains. The sake had the aroma of
roasted fish, but it tasted more like sake.
In Japan, a license has been required to cut torafugu, the "King of
Blowfish," for about the last 60 years. (There are roughly 25 edible kinds of
fugu.) It is the sex organs and the guts of the fish that can cause a deadly
paralysis, but expertly handled, it is safe.
Peter Faccibene, another owner of Shiro, said "fugu poison administered in
the right amount gives you a high," without death as a side effect. He hastened
to add that he does not know this from personal experience. To have just the
right amount for nirvana without death, however, is a dangerous balancing act.
Perhaps I experienced bliss, but it came only from being well fed.
Years ago, Nobuyoshi Kuraoka, who owns Nippon, a Japanese restaurant in
Manhattan, hired lawyers and set in motion torafugu licensing in this country,
by the Torafugu Buyers Association Inc. Shiro sushi chef Nori Fujieda is
certified by that body.
As with so many other fish these days, fugu is now farmed, as this one was.
The fish is carefully prepared for shipping in Japan and must pass stringent
inspections upon arrival here, to ensure its purity.
Samurai used to eat fugu before going into battle, for strength, Ishikawa
said. But many of them died before the battles started.
In 1890, when Japan's prime minister visited a resort, rough seas prevented
fishing for a few days. The hostess threw caution to the winds and served fugu
to him, as it was what was available. The next day, he inquired, "What was the
fish last night?"
The woman confessed, and the politician, instead of being angry, championed
the notion that the delicious fish should be served.
Ishikawa himself said he would not eat fugu if there was the slightest
chance of its being deadly.
"Why bet your life?" he said. "You die for your lover, you die for your
mother, you die for your country, but you don't die for food."
Fugu is served only by reservation, to groups of at least four people. The
meal described above is $150 a person before tax and tip; an alternative
five-course meal without fugu is $100. Shiro of Japan is at 501 Old Country Rd.
in Carle Place. Call 516-997-4770 or reserve by e-mailing
SAUTEED OYSTERS, SHIRO STYLE
It would be foolhardy to prepare fugu at home, even if you could get some.
Instead, here is a recipe for one of Shiro's most popular dishes.
6 fresh oysters, shucked, 6 half shells reserved and washed
Flour to coat oysters
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 clove garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons sake or white wine
1 teaspoon soy sauce
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Chopped scallion for garnish
1. Dredge oysters in flour. Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat.
2. Fry oysters for 30 to 45 seconds on each side, until the outsides are
3. Add butter, sake and garlic, and saute for 1 minute.
4. Add soy sauce and lemon juice; remove from heat.
5. Place an oyster in each shell and garnish with chopped scallions. Makes
3 appetizer servings of
2 oysters each.