Earlier, I kinda got lucky while gambling at a nearby Pachinko parlor.
So later today, we went for some Japanese Blowfish – Fugu!
Fugu is a really expensive and exquisite dish, one that’s highly regarded in Japan.
In the 18th century, a Japanese poet: Yosa no Buson; expressed his love for eating Fugu in this simple but elegant Haiku:
“I cannot see her tonight.”
“I have to give her up,”
“So I will eat fugu.”
Like the great poets of old and new, Buson is no different in that he yearned for a woman that was not his love. However, in the great tradition of finding comfort in food, he instead turned to Fugu in order to mend his broken heart.
Another famous Japanese story tells the tale of three men, who prepared a dish of Fugu but were afraid to taste it out of fear of death. Driven to the point of despair, the wisest among them served the dish to a beggar in order to test its potency.
Later, when the men returned to find that the beggar is still alive, they breathed a sigh of relief, and immediately dined on the Fugu.
Like most Japanese folk tales, trickery and deceit are ultimately vanquished by wisdom and craft. This particular tale being no different – as the beggar secretly hid away the stew hoping that the three men would eat it first.
After seeing that they were alive and well, the wise beggar retired to the back streets, and finally ate his Fugu with peace of mind.
This of course brings about the question: Why exactly is Fugu so deadly?
Blowfish packs a lethal punch in the form of Tetrodotoxin, an extremely potent Neurotoxin that paralyzes its victims while they are still conscious. To put things into perspective, this means that you are fully aware as your throat closes, your lungs deflate and drift slowly into death’s arms.
There is no known cure.
Of course, Japan is a country of safety and order, so thankfully the majority of deaths occur when untrained people catch and prepare the fish, accidentally poisoning themselves in the process. The most dangerous culprit is the liver, which is regarded as the tastiest morsel of the Blowfish.
If you’re lucky, the liver will contain only enough poison to numb the palette and raise the adrenaline. If you’re unlucky however, the liver will contain enough poison to kill you ten times over.
Japan is also a country of pride and honor, which is way Blowfish liver – though illegal, is one of the most coveted of meals.
In 1975, the famous Kabuki actor and “Living National Treasure” Bandou Mitsugorou VIII requested four servings of liver from a fugu chef in Kyoto. Unable to refuse the request of someone of such an elevated stature, the chef served the livers to Bandou Mitsugorou VIII.
He died just minutes after – with his pride and honor intact of course.
Although illegal in Europe and almost all of restaurants in America, the subtle art of eating Blowfish is still very much alive in modern Japan. Not surprisingly, eating Fugu with a bunch of crazy companions is something that just sort of happens naturally in Japan.
The best time to eat Fugu is in the winter, when Blowfish pack on the pounds to beat the chill. Needless to say, this is also when the toxicity of the Blowfish reaches its peak.
Prices rise. Restaurants are packed. Emergency rooms are on stand-by.
Making sure you don’t meet your maker earlier than prescribed is the Fugu chef, a man of exacting precision and immeasurable skill. With a calculated flick of the blade, the Fugu chef separates the tender flesh from the poisonous internal organs.
Only specially-licensed chefs are allowed to serve Fugu to the public. Much like brain surgery and rocket science, not just any average Joe (or in this case average Haruki) can slice up a Blowfish. Indeed, an aspiring Fugu chef must first serve for several years as an apprentice before they are allowed to take the certification test.
Earning your Fugu license consists of three parts: a written test, a species identification test and the practical. Although most applicants breeze through the first two parts, less than two-thirds of apprentices are successful in preparing the Blowfish for consumption.
Much like choosing a good pizza joint or a romantic spot to sip a cocktail, your Fugu experience can vary depending on the restaurant. Excellent Fugu will have you begging for a second plate. Poor Fugu will have you gasping for your last breath.
Truth be told, most Fugu-eating takes place at specialty restaurants, which are fairly easy to identify even in the urban jungle that is Japan.
If you really want to sample the full culinary spectrum of Fugu, you’re going to have to spend between ¥10,000 and ¥25,000. The centerpiece of this meal is Fugu Sashimi, which is usually extremely thinly sliced, and arranged in a decorative pattern on a porcelain plate.
Although first-time consumers of Fugu are surprised to discover that Blowfish is rather tasteless compared to fish such as Tuna or Salmon, aficionados focus on the delicate texture and the elegant presentation.
Of course, a good Fugu chef will dress up the dish with homemade soy sauce as well as a small dab of freshly grated Wasabi to cleanse the palette and clear the sinuses.
A GREAT Fugu chef will dress up the dish with a citrus-accented Ponzu dipping sauce as well as a small dab of poison to numb the palette and clear the mind.
Accompaniments to Fugu Sashimi include a variety of Blowfish organs and parts that you probably didn’t think were edible. Blowfish fins can be flash-fried in hot sesame oil, and then served in a carafe of hot sake.
Blowfish skin can de-spiked, crisped over a hot flame and then sprinkled over a fresh salad of white radish and cucumber. Blowfish testicles can be eaten like grapes – although it’s something of an acquired taste, the flavor is reminiscent of salty milk.
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