Blow­fish Tokyo

The mo­ment you put a cool, thin slice of puffer fish in your mouth, your palate tin­gles. Is that be­cause it’s Ja­pan’s most cu­ri­ous culi­nary de­light or be­cause you’re lit­er­ally tast­ing death? Both ac­tu­ally, and it’s a hell of a rush.

Bespoke - - THE CONTENTS -

Let's start by set­ting the scene. You’re in Ja­pan and in front of you is a plate of care­fully cut sashimi, laced with all the trim­mings: soy sauce, chilli, the works. It looks fairly in­no­cent, right? Wrong, this is a deadly del­i­cacy. The fish in ques­tion is fugu and it’s the most cu­ri­ous of del­i­ca­cies in Ja­pan. Com­monly re­ferred to as blow­fish or puffer­fish, fugu is a cold-sea­son catch that con­tains tetrodotoxin in its in­testines, ovaries and liver, a poi­son so po­tent the U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion says it can “pro­duce rapid and vi­o­lent death”. In­deed, af­ter a mass poi­son­ing of Ja­panese troops in the 1500s, fugu was to­tally pro­hib­ited and re­mained as such un­til 1888, when leg­end has it that the coun­try’s first prime min­is­ter, Hirobumi Ito, took a taste of fugu and sur­vived to give his ap­proval. Re­cent statis­tics claim there were 315 cases of fugu poi­son­ings in Ja­pan be­tween 1996 and 2005; 31 of them fa­tal. That’s ba­si­cally just three to four peo­ple a year, and much credit has to go to the fact that fugu can now only legally be han­dled by chefs who have ap­pren­ticed un­der a master for at least three years be­fore then pass­ing a bat­tery of tests by a cer­ti­fied govern­men­tal board. Eas­ily recog­nis­able for its black spots, Fugu is not at­trac­tive – quite the op­po­site in fact, as it looks like a beast from the sea, but its flavour is said to be sur­pris­ingly un-fishy. The amaz­ing thing is, de­spite its deadly char­ac­ter, nu­mer­ous po­ets and em­per­ors have risked their lives over the cen­turies to eat the del­i­cacy, and that’s ex­actly why we de­cided to fol­low suit. Af­ter a lit­tle re­search we learned that one of Ja­pan’s best­known fugu es­tab­lish­ments is Sawaichi, a hotspot favoured by Ja­panese celebri­ties that’s lo­cated in Tokyo’s ur­ban nightlife district of Rop­pongi. For a lit­tle ex­tra authen­tic­ity though, you might pre­fer to ven­ture over to Hi­monoseki, which is con­sid­ered to be the blow­fish cap­i­tal of Ja­pan and where you’ll find Fuku Ry­ori Shin­oda, the city’s most fa­mous puffer­fish estab­lish­ment. The term fuku, mean­ing “blow,” was the orig­i­nal word for blow­fish, but the name has a dou­ble-mean­ing, as it’s also the word for “luck.” In other words, this is the Ve­gas of eater­ies, and the stakes are your life. Of course, for most, the con­cept of tak­ing food this se­ri­ously is just plain nuts, but for the rest of us, fugu rep­re­sents the Ever­est of epi­curean plea­sures. Our ini­ti­a­tion into this sur­real club hap­pened at a place that lit­er­ally took the ex­pe­ri­ence to the limit – Muk­ou­jima Hashimoto in Tokyo, where a tast­ing menu set us back a mere 150 USD (com­pared to 450 USD at some of the swankier, al­beit pos­si­bly safer, venues). Our chef sug­gested a six-course great­est-hits menu that in­cluded things like fugu sashimi (fugu-sashi), fried fugu ribs (fugu kara-age), smoked fugu fins in sake (fugu hire-zake), hot fugu por­ridge (fugu-nabe), and the fugu sperm sac (shira-ko) served two ways – raw and lightly grilled. To be hon­est, the first bite came with a lot of ap­pre­hen­sion, es­pe­cially since there was talk of the sperm sack closely re­sem­bling its deadly ovaries. But, with beaded brows we pro­ceeded any­way to lay those first slices of cool, thin fugu in our mouths and, well, it was oddly pleas­ant. Fugu is ac­tu­ally a sub­tle fish that’s more no­table for its meaty tex­ture than flavour. Iron­i­cally by the time we were done we were ac­tu­ally struck more by the health­ful­ness of the ex­pe­ri­ence than its risk fac­tor. Some tes­tify that the taste of fugu is the real plea­sure. Oth­ers counter that, without the condi­ments, fugu has lit­tle taste at all. In all fair­ness, we think its ap­peal is a tes­ta­ment to the Ja­panese pro­cliv­ity for flirt­ing with dan­ger. As one diner com­mented, “The lure is the sen­sa­tion that though you know it won't hap­pen, it just might be you this time.” As we said, it’s one hell of a rush.

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