Friday, July 13, 2007
FUGU. The bleeding edge of cool when it comes to sashimi. Maverick among shrimp, salmon and maguro. Lethal, white, and chewy. A fish to be reckoned with.
In the English language, fugu is "blowfish." It might as well be called "death on fins" because of its notorious toxicity: the skin, testicles, and liver of fugu are bursting with tetrodotoxin, a powerful neurotoxin (wikipedia). A fugu chef must carefully carve all the precious fugu meat from the fish without rupturing these organs, which would release the toxin. If he does, little Joey at table four could wind up paralyzed (while still conscious) , comatose, and probably dead with a few hours. No, there's no antidote; I'm not kidding.
But I love playing with culinary fire - it's the only reason why I get up in the morning. So, my trusty friend Hideki and I set out for Torafugu in Hibiya, Tokyo, to gamble with our lives and maybe eat some sushi. "Fugu doesn't actually taste like much," said Hideki, "It's kinda rubbery, like a cross between tuna and chicken. Most Japanese eat it just or the novelty, although there are some gourmets who claim the taste is desirable."
Those suicidal Japanese. According to varying reports, somewhere between 20 and 100 people die from fugu poisoning in Japan every year. However, most of these deaths result from fugu caught and prepared by amateurs - it's highly illegal to prepare and sell fugu without licensing. If you want to become a fugu chef you have to train for several years. Part of the final exam involves preparing fugu sashimi and eating part of it yourself. Ha ha.
Hideki and I needed an aperitif, so we ordered hirezake, or grilled fugu fin steeped in hot sake (above photo). This is a very traditional fugu specialty. Hey, I'll try anything once. I had to put my glass down quickly because at the first sip I felt like someone had grabbed my throat wearing hot oven mittens. Apparently, good hirezake includes a tiny amount of tetrodotoxin, which has a buzzing, numbing effect on the lips and tongue. Coupled with alcohol, it packs real punch. I sipped cautiously. I was startled at the juxtaposition of tastes (fish and sake? Together? In the same cup?), but I quickly grew to like hirezake. The flavors play off each other so well, and it warms your trunk better than hot cider on Christmas Eve.
We ordered a seven course fugu dinner, with - you guessed it - fugu prepared 6 different ways. The seventh course was ice cream. First came fugu sashimi, or fugusashi, so thinly sliced you could see the plate underneath. The taste was pleasant, but rather bland. Mouth feel was not quite satisfying either; a little too rubbery.
fugu nabe, or shabu shabu style fugu. Our server arrived with the raw ingredients to dip into boiling water: mushrooms, cabbage, and large slices of fugu meat, prepared seconds before. I know this because the meat was still twitching when we picked it up with our chopsticks.
My boss had told me to review shirako as well, so I ordered a plate to go along with my rice. Shirako is very rich, like fois gras, but with seafood undertones; goes well with rice. I later found out that shirako is cooked fugu testicles.
Hideki and I relaxed over beers, our mission completed. We smiled at each other, because we knew that if we had been poisoned, we would have noticed by now. I guess this time I dodged the bullet.
above: shirako; below: hideki eating fried fugu