So what are the odds that this will actually, uh, kill me? I wondered as I sped downtown to make my 7:30 dinner reservation. I consoled myself with the fact that there was a certain risk of death associated with eating spinach—greater still with ground beef. Hell, I was probably more likely to die in a car accident between my house and Origami than from eating my first bite of blowfish.
In December, the Minneapolis Origami became the first restaurant in the state to serve fugu, commonly known as blowfish or pufferfish. These cute, bubble-shaped creatures (elastic stomachs enable them to inflate their bodies with water to scare off predators) are among the most poisonous animals in the world, as they contain a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin, primarily in their internal organs. Tiny amounts of tetrodotoxin can create a pleasant numbing sensation, but too much will cause your limbs to freeze, your heart and lungs to seize. A pinhead-size drop of tetrodotoxin could kill a man, and there's no known antidote for the stuff. In Japan, where fugu is most popular, an estimated 10,000 tons of the fish are eaten annually—even though it poisons roughly 300 people a decade and kills about 10 percent of its victims. Could any food, no matter how delicious, be worth such a risk?
Origami offers three fugu dishes. I ordered a sampling of each, for $45. The first to arrive was a glass of sake infused with the fish's fin. The waitress said it gave the sake a "smoky" flavor, though I think "skunky" might better characterize its rotten aroma and tang. New York food critic Adam Platt once wrote that the drink tasted "like a warm sardine milk shake," and I won't disagree.
Next, Origami's certified fugu chef, Shigeyuki Furukawa, sent out a plate of fugu sashimi, cut from the fish's belly and sliced nearly to transparence. The slices have a chewy, clam-like texture and taste only faintly of fish, as do the small strips of rubbery skin. Not feeling any numbness, I moved on to the third fugu dish: bone-in hunks, dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried. The flavor was as light as walleye's, but the flesh has a stringy, sinewy texture similar to skate. Between the grease and the bones, it wasn't so different from fried chicken—and it sort of tastes like it, too.
But after I finished my meal, I learned that unlike fugu eaten in Japan, where the fish is often purchased at a market and cleaned by one certified chef, fugu eaten in America undergoes several more layers of scrutiny. The folks at Origami told me that their fugu is cleaned at a licensed Japanese processing plant, then inspected by the FDA upon entering the country, before finally being prepared by a certified chef. Also, the United States only allows farm-raised fugu, which has been fed a controlled diet that significantly reduces the likelihood that the fish contains tetrodotoxin. So American fugu isn't actually so dangerous. "I can say with 99.99 percent certainty that you'll be fine," one Origami staffer assured me.
Fugu may be worth eating once, just to try it, but here's the thing: While I certainly wouldn't risk my life for the experience of eating American fugu, the lack of danger was a little anticlimactic. It was like I'd psyched myself up to base jump off a cliff—and then leaped off a kitchen table.
FEELING A LITTLE DISAPPOINTED by my not-so-close brush with death, I decided to seek out something that really struck fear to my heart: extreme spice. I like spicy food well enough, but I've never been a heat freak—one of those people with a hankering for something that might blister a throat, gut a digestive system, and set off a lengthy bout of stomach cramps and diarrhea.
Blogger Bill Roehl is one of those people, and he tipped me off to the most serious test of his heat-seeking mettle—not a Thai, Indonesian, or Caribbean spot, but a place called Girvan Grille, which overlooks the Edinburgh USA golf course in Brooklyn Park.
The suburban-feeling restaurant inside Edinburgh's castle-like structure seemed a little classy for getting all sauce-faced and sticky-handed, but Girvan's claim to fame is its "Ghost Wing," made with the restaurant's Dragon Sauce, habanero peppers, habanero Tabasco sauce, and bhut jolokia, or ghost peppers, the hottest chiles on the planet. Their Scoville rating is weapons-grade: India's defense department is researching the idea of controlling rioters with ghost pepper-based hand grenades (in rural parts of the country, the peppers are wiped onto fences and used in smoke bombs to keep wild elephants at bay). To beat the Ghost Wing Challenge, contestants must eat 10 wings in 15 minutes, without consuming any other food or beverage or wiping their hands or faces. Contestants sign a waiver—"Good hot wings always burn twice...Girvan Grille is not responsible for next-day discomfort.... Girvan Grille is not responsible for all other wings tasting bland and lifeless after consuming our Ghost Wings"—and minors must have parental permission.
Roehl reported that after consuming 10 Ghost Wings he started to get sweaty and lightheaded, and felt his fingers tingle; after 20 wings his arms went numb. "Later," he wrote, "I was on the floor of my bathroom wondering if the stomach cramping would stop long enough for me to go to the ER." When I told this to my friend Katie, who had agreed to accompany me to Girvan, she expressed some concern. "We could die at a golf club," she said.
When our plate of Ghost Wings arrived, their wafting scent opened up our nasal passages, as if to warn us of the potency of the wing's gooey red sauce. Worried about burning her fingertips, Katie approached the wing with a knife and fork.
She took a bite and appeared to swallow painlessly—a good sign, I thought. My first taste surprised me with its complexity of flavor. The fiery sensation at the tip of my tongue blossomed into a spectrum of fruity, woodsy notes, with hints of campfire, paprika, and adobo—all the nuance that usually gets lost in extremely spicy dishes. I took another bite, glanced up from my plate, and noticed Katie's pained look. "Can you breathe?" I asked. "Where does it hurt? Should I call the ambulance?"
Before she could respond, the ghost pepper revealed its power to me: The pepper's secret is its brief grace period, in which it lulls its victims into submission—during those first few seconds, a cocky sort might even take a few more bites. But then the heat begins its slow, phantom-like crescendo, moving from lips to mouth to throat to stomach. Unlike the heat of other chiles, which seems to strike quickly, then retreat, the ghost pepper was unrelenting. For several minutes Katie and I chugged water and crunched iceberg lettuce from the salad we'd ordered, just in case. We whistled in short, rapid breaths as our eyes watered and faces flushed. "My face is seizing up," Katie said. I lifted a ramekin of ranch dressing to my lips and drank it like a shot.
Several minutes later the pain eventually subsided, and we noticed a couple of guys at the next table had empty Ghost Wing platters. One of them had just polished off 18 wings and said that he usually comes in two or three times a week for his fix. "Do you feel the euphoria yet?" he asked. We didn't. But perhaps half a wing apiece wasn't enough to trigger a spice high—or perhaps the euphoria was simply a rush of testosterone caused by the hubris of defeating the ghost pepper. We weren't willing to experiment further after the wing champ confirmed our fear of the wings' aftereffects. "Let's just say that the next day is not the good part," he admitted.
WHOEVER THOUGHT MEETING her maker would look like this: four cheeseburgers; three grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches, two puck-shaped, chili-cheese hot-dog burgers; one fried egg; and several strips of chicken-fried bacon stacked a foot high and stabbed through the center with a steak knife, then garnished with onion rings and cheese curds? But there it was, set before me by my waitress at Burger Jones. After chumping out on the wing challenge, I thought I might redeem myself by facing my other worst nightmare: extreme eating challenges. This one is called Meat Your Maker, and it looked nearly the size of a Lance Armstrong thigh. If I polished it off in less than an hour, I'd leave with a T-shirt, a gift certificate, a smug sense of satisfaction, and, quite likely, a massive stomachache.
When the waitress delivered the beast, diners at other tables openly stared. "Are you really going to eat all that?" a man in a neighboring booth inquired. A woman at another table muttered something about just how very wrong the whole thing was. A guy in a chef jacket that said "burger meister" on the breast came out of the kitchen and mentioned that a professional—Patrick "Deep Dish" Bertoletti, it turns out, who is ranked third in the world by the International Federation of Competitive Eating—had recently been in the restaurant and completed the challenge. Burger meister passed on Bertoletti's technique. "Take lots of little sips of water and eat the greasy stuff last," he said.
I laid all 10,000-some calories on its side, toppling the thing like a felled tree. Ignoring the burger meister's advice, I couldn't help but nibble a few of the cheese curds—everybody knows they're not any good once they're cold.
Half an hour later I'd eaten one of the burgers, an onion ring, half a piece of bread, and a few bites of the puck-shaped hot dog. I might have done better had the stack not been so overcooked, bland, and heavily salted. I found myself nibbling on the egg white for a little relief. But the truth was, no matter how it tasted, I didn't have the stomach for it. Literally.
After I gave up, burger meister returned to check on me once more. When I asked him if he was disappointed in me, he shook his head, said nothing, and headed back to the kitchen.