The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - DESTINATION | JAPAN - LEANNE KITCHEN

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 …



Wakasa puffer fish, or fugu thin fil­let, with lemon, sauce, wasabi and herbs.

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