Bits of dancing rubber. Delicious!

By Ben Macintyre (THE TIMES, 23/11/07):

Only the Japanese truly know how to create a meal to die for. I know this, having once diced with the Sushi of Death, also known as Japanese pufferfish, or fugu. I was living in New York in 1985 when the US Food and Drug Administration relaxed its rules to allow the import of pufferfish for the first time. A particularly sadistic foreign editor thought it would be amusing to make me go and eat it, and see if I survived.

This ugly, spiny, inflatable fish is one of the world’s great delicacies: Japanese poets extol its flavours, lovers consider it an aphrodisiac, and every year a handful of people die from it, for in addition to being remarkably tasty and very expensive, the fugu fish is fantastically poisonous. Its organs contain tetrodotoxin, a poison some 25 times more powerful than cyanide.

Captain Cook’s crew, on a voyage to New Caledonia, was almost wiped out by eating fugu. In From Russia with Love the evil Smersh boss, Rosa Klebb, attempts to do away with James Bond by using the fish venom. Fried fugu livers were traditionally used to commit ritual suicide. Even today, the Emperor may not eat pufferfish. Wrongly prepared, a slice of pufferfish tainted with tetrodotoxin will paralyse the nervous system in minutes and kill within hours. There is no known antidote.

I have never tasted anything more delicious. Having watched the chef whip out the organs of the fish with a good deal too much nonchalance for my liking, I was first served fugu sashimi, arranged on a platter in the delicate shape of a chrysanthemum; this was followed by marinated fugu, fugu tempura and then fugu broth, washed down by warm saki with a single pufferfish fin it.

After so many years, I cannot adequately describe the flavour, but I seem to recall something like small, melting pieces of ethereal rubber made by laughing angels, dancing on the tongue and leaving a gently anaesthetic effect on the lips. But more than the taste, I remember the beauty of the occasion, the thought and craft of each successive course, the wafting waiters, the private room, the hushed and reverential conversation, the pure enjoyment.

The Japanese know how to eat, and how to relate to food, in a way that most cultures have long forgotten: as an intellectual and aesthetic experience, as much as an exercise of the taste buds. This week the Michelin guide awarded a stunning 191 stars to restaurants in Tokyo, with no less than eight establishments winning the top accolade of three stars. Paris, by contrast, can boast only 98 stars in total; London, a mere 50.

A fascination with food is buried deep in Japan’s cultural make-up. Eating — even cheap, humble everyday nourishment — is taken seriously. There is an insatiable curiosity about food in Japan, a hunger to explore the intricacies of flavour, texture and colour, an insistence on freshness and seasonality, a willingness to adapt and adopt other culinary cultures. Tokyo has at least 200,000 places to eat, or one for every 45 people.

In Britain, food has improved over the past two decades, but too often we pay ludicrously high prices to eat gussied-up celebrity food, or convince ourselves we are eating well just because the local pub now calls itself a gastropub. Mostly we eat rubbish, snarfing down high-calorie, ready-cooked chum, wordlessly, eyes glued to the television. A worrying (and growing) number of Britons choose to eat alone.

Humans were not meant to eat this way. We treat food differently from any other species: we share it, eat it in public and make eye contact while eating; we eat certain foods at certain times of day, and on ritual occasions; we define ourselves and other communities by food, from “Frogs” to “Rosbifs”. With any other animal, placing food halfway between two hungry members of the same species would be an invitation to a fight, not a convivial supper.

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that cooking and eating represented the very origin of human cultural development: once Homo sapiens could develop co-operative food strategies, and explore different ways of preparing his nourishment, then language could develop, the first dinner-party conversation around the camp fire could begin. Cooking made food more digestible and broke down toxins, but it was also an act of creativity and imagination. It ceased to be merely the necessary means to keep man alive.

Some in the West find the manner of Japanese eating off-putting: the brittle perfection, the formality, the obsessive attention to detail in order to produce something that seems so simple, the taste for the obscure and unlikely, such as snapper sperm sacs or lethal fish.

Yet the imaginative, interested and collective Japanese way of eating is surely far closer to the way humans ought to — and used to — share food than our own willingness to eat identical, poor-quality hamburgers in identical plastic wrapping, alone and unspeaking. Sharing a meal — the peculiar behaviour so central to the development of culture and society — is about conversation and ritual, exchanging ideas, experimenting with colour, taste and arrangement. It should not be simply about slaking a hunger.

The Japanese richly deserve their new galaxy of Michelin stars, for no culture treats its food with such detailed aesthetic attention. Good food should be about taking chances, and putting the poetry back into eating if it is the last thing we do.

Which, in the case of the suicidal Haiku poet bidding adieu to his lover, it was.

I cannot see her tonight
I have to give her up
So I will eat fugu