Bruce Bentzman offers his latest output

From the Night Factory

40. Fugu

Ms Keogh, my more significant other, and I happened to be in Manhattan. We love that city and would visit it often, but it costs too much to travel to Manhattan, with the tolls, the parking, and then the temptations once you are there. We must save our money if we intend to move to the United Kingdom in August. Still, it was a grand excitement to be walking the sidewalks of Midtown on a Thursday afternoon, the exhilarating bustle of humanity, the inviting amusements and shop windows, and the places to feast, yet we hurried by them.

We were in the city at the invitation of my second cousin to dine with her at the Yale Club. I had seen my second cousin, Shaz, only once before and that was at least forty years ago. The Yale Club I have never seen, except from the street, looking up into the tall Romanesque windows of the second floor at the ornate ceiling when that room was lit on an evening. I now know it to be the main lounge and therein hang paintings of five Yale graduates who went on to become U.S. Presidents.

It was an enjoyable lunch that concluded with promises to meet soon again and not forty years hence when I shall be 103. Ms Keogh and I were making our way across town to where we parked, having decided we could not afford to linger in the city and there was much to do at home, like laundry and cleaning the dishes left in the sink, and didn’t I have a book to read? We particularly wanted to avoid rush hour. Had we waited until rush hour was over, we would have succumbed to the allure of Manhattan and gone further into debt.

Our walk took us past a sushi restaurant, Hangiri (which is not its real name, but I have my reasons). I knew Hangiri from many years ago, but it was not located here, rather it was a smaller place down in the Diamond District. I looked closely at the menu posted in the window to see if it was the same chef. I couldn’t find the name. I googled Hangiri as soon as we were home and it was, Itamae-san (not his real name, but again I have my reasons).

Seki-san was a dear friend and great heart who, long ago, I escorted around Manhattan. We dined at many restaurants, attended concerts together, explored museums, and  walked the city’s avenues at every hour of the night. She decided to introduce me to fugu.

Seki-san worked for the Japanese embassy in New York. That is how she knew where to get fugu. The Japanese restaurant she took me to no longer exists. It was on the second or third floor of a three-story building with large windows overlooking the Avenue of the Americas. That building and its neighbors have since been replaced by the Bank of America Tower, the third tallest building in the city. It was at this restaurant where Itamae-san worked before he owned his own place. I had been there a few times with Seki-san. She introduced me to Itamae-san, who could barely speak English. I had learned to love sushi prior to being taken to this restaurant, but they had the best sushi and Itamae-san was a chef of a different caliber.

I was used to having sushi served on small wooden platforms, but this was the first time I had an assortment of treats delivered on a large palm leaf. Every presentation was artistry. I took notice of Itamae-san’s knives. They were simple and exquisite. My having shown an interest, he brought out another, special one he had kept in a box in another room. His hands moved any knife with speed and grace.

It was after several visits with Seki-san that she one evening ordered the fugu. She had been very hush-hush about it, not telling me beforehand what she had planned until we were there. I was to refrain from telling anyone about the experience because fugu, at that time, was not legal in the United States.

Fugu contains tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin which is 100 times or 1200 times more lethal than cyanide, depending where you read about it. Lotte Lenya in the movie From Russia with Love plays the evil SMERSH/SPECTRE agent Rosa Klebb who, when she clicks her heals together, has a poisoned blade pop out of her shoe. It is poison harvested from the blowfish – fugu! With this she tries to kick James Bond. In the movie she fails. In the book she succeeds. Ian Fleming intended to kill off his hero, but because of the popularity of the series, Fleming brought him back in the book Dr. No. A pin prick with the poison causes paralysis which eventually stops the diaphragm causing death by asphyxiation. In the book, Bond is rescued first by artificial respiration and then with an antidote. While there is no antidote, despite the book’s claim, life-support systems can work, sometimes, keeping the victim alive until the poison has worn off.

In Japan, fugu is a delicacy. Since it entails a risk, chefs are required to be licensed. Procuring a license takes three years and not everyone passes the test, which includes eating the results yourself. Itamae-san was licensed in Japan to prepare fugu. In Japan, most deaths from fugu occur when untrained housewives try to appease their husband’s wishes, or maybe it’s the other way around.

Itamae-san’s preparation was the usual mesmerizing performance of precision with a slender knife. This was sashimi which, unlike sushi, uses no rice. All the poisonous parts were cut away and the chef presented the flesh of the fish on a large decorated plate distributed like the petals of a chrysanthemum, translucently thin. The large quantity of delicate petals was misleading because each piece was an insubstantial amount and the flavor was very subtle. I found the taste to be glorious, an experience that must be approached with a clean palate.

Ms Keogh has never had the opportunity to take delight in fugu nor would she want to, yet she did sample Itamae-san’s artistry with other species of fish on several occasions long ago. “He was a sculptor who created beautiful pieces out of garnishes,” Ms Keogh recalls. She goes on to say, “I was mesmerized by his deft fingers creating edible masterpieces, performance art at its most delicious!” We reveled on learning that Hangiri has grown into the great success that Itamae-san deserves. He would not remember m e, but I can hardly forget him and the clandestine evening when I first tried that illegal delicacy. If Hangiri and Itamae-san are pseudonyms, it is because I do not wish to cause him difficulties from long past activities. Today, he is one of the very few chefs licensed to serve fugu in the United States. Celebrated and renowned, he requires no further publicity from me.

Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions, he would be pleased to hear from you. 

Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.