On a knife's edge

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am


'If you really want to taste the poison,' confides our waitress with a little too much enthusiasm, 'chew the bones.'

Spread before us at a restaurant in Shinjuku, Tokyo, is a feast of fugu (right). Two courses are the sort of culinary origami I've been expecting - a small bowl of finely sliced skin garnished with spring onions and a platter of transparent sashimi arranged like a chrysanthemum.

These pose no obvious threat and lack flavour.

The pleasure is in the contrast of textures - the rubbery crunch of the elastic skin then the wafer-thin discs of sashimi that dissolve on the tongue.

The rest of the meal is quite frankly alarming. When eating poison, it is generally recommended to keep the portions small. But our fish has been laterally bisected, in the manner of a Damien Hirst cow, then chopped into fist-sized chunks-o-fugu. These twitch and glisten like specimens in a high school biology test. Worse, the parroty beak opens and shuts for a full minute after being put on the table.

We simmer the meat in a pot of egg-and-rice soup, joking nervously about how long one should cook a toxin, to be on the safe side. The result is unlike any fish I've ever eaten: delicious and as firm as chicken but without the sinew.

It also lacks the heavy flakes typical of white fish. Chewing on the bones - well we have to, don't we? - does indeed produce a tingling in the lips and, if you think about it long enough, a numbing of the throat.

How much of this is down to the power of suggestion and how much to the power of tetrodotoxin is debatable. But that night, lying awake compulsively clearing my throat, the tingle lingers long after the taste has been forgotten.