DINNER WITH A SIDE OF DANGER
Sizing up a plate of pearly-white sashimi draped alluringly in the shape of a chrysanthemum, I’m a tad on edge. When contemplating Japan’s notoriously deadly puffer fish, it’s hard not to think how this stuff can totally take you out. But – phew – I’m in the safe hands of chef Wakisaka Nobuyuki, who’s been specially trained and certified to handle it. He cooks at Hagihonjin, a ryokan in ocean-side Hagi, renowned for onsen (hot spring baths) set into a rambling garden. And its fugu restaurant.
Reasons to visit Hagi, on the southwest coast of Japan’s Honshu Island, include streets lined with beautiful Edo-era (1603 -1868) samurai houses and other heritage structures, and to buy rustic Hagi ware, a celebrated pottery style. Plus, this prefecture (Yamaguchi) is nirvana in puffer fish terms, particularly during winter when the Sea of Japan yields torafugu (“tiger” fugu) at their fattened best. That they’re wild-caught (only 5 per cent of Japan’s fugu are) adds to the allure. Costing five times more than farmed specimens, you pay around $60 for just 15 slices of paper-thin torafugu sashimi.
I’m sure I’m not the first to need reassurance before tucking into fugu. And Chef Nobuyuki has cooked up a puffer fish storm; there’s fugu chirinabe (chunks of the fish, tofu and vegetables simmered in hearty dashi broth) and fugu grilled over charcoal, brushed with slightly sweetened soy. Charred, sun-dried fugu fins float in a sake that accompanies the whole shebang; called hirezake, the drink is flamed then covered with a lid to keep in flavours. It’s smoky, savoury, has faint whiffs of the sea, and I reckon if I throw back enough, it’ll make me forget I’m about to eat the second most poisonous vertebrate on the planet.
Turns out, I’m fretting over nothing. Chef Nobuyuki explains the toxicant (tetrodotoxin) is concentrated in the liver, ovaries, intestines, brain and eyes. It’s with amateur preparation that things go pear-shaped. Even the merest contamination of flesh with poison is lethal; a single fish could theoretically dispatch 30 people via agonising neural paralysis.
Oh, and here’s a fun fact, there’s no known antidote. But with the removal and incineration of the deadly bits by a certified chef, using a special knife called a fugu hiki, the fish is guaranteed good to go.
For Japanese, fugu is a treat. They love its mild, clean taste and hallmark meaty texture; the flesh is chewy when raw. For all the fuss and foreboding, eating it has been pleasantly benign. Although. I can’t help but wonder if there’s secret messaging in that sashimi/ flower arrangement at the start of my meal because in Japan, white chrysanthemums symbolise death …
THE WRITER WAS A GUEST OF SETOUCHI TOURISM AUTHORITY
Wakasa puffer fish, or fugu thin fillet, with lemon, sauce, wasabi and herbs.