“If they ask us to prepay….I’m out”, I said to Patrick with a smirk. Patrick and I were slowly approaching one of many fugu specific restaurants here in Tokyo. I looked up at the building, a big blowfish head adorned the upper part of the building’s front face and a large tank full of fish was prominently placed near the entrance. Part of me was wondering whether this was a good idea or not, was a meal worth the potential risk. Was it even good?
All these doubts seem to increase the previous night when we were originally planning to go to the restaurant and all of my coworkers except for Patrick backed out. Since we didn’t end up going previously, and with this being Patrick’s last night, this was probably the last chance if I was going to find someone to go with.
Fugu is probably the most infamous of all Japanese delicacies. Outside of Japan people know it as something deadly, forbidden, and frightening. My first memory of hearing about Fugu was one of the early Simpsons episodes where Homer goes to a sushi restaurants and demands fugu and the unskilled chef tries to prepare it for him.
The episode follows Homer believing he may have only 24 hrs to live and him living out the last potential day in his life. My mind can’t stop from going back to this episode, even if its just a cartoon, with the words of the amateur chef as he looked at the fugu diagram ringing in my head…”Poison, Poison, Tasty fish.”
In Japan however it seems less urban legend and more culinary delicacy. Many people eat fugu and it is something that you can find in many parts of Japan especially in the major cities. But even here it is one delicacy even today that is forbidden to the emperor because of the lethal potentiality. There are many varieties of pufferfish not all of which are poisonous, but of those that are they can be fatal if prepared incorrectly.
Is it Safe?
A Fugu chef will prepare for years to properly cut and identify the fish to avoid the poisonous organs contained within. A wrong move however and the neurotoxin is extremely deadly. The neurotoxin slowly shuts down your body functions while the victim remains conscious until most eventually die of asphyxiation. The size of the lethal dose itself is very small and there is currently no antidote. So why do people take the risk? I think that is part of the reason I’m here doing this…the question what really is fugu and why do we as people risk death to eat it.
However as an important note very rarely will someone die from a professional licensed establishment, nearly all cases are either by unskilled chefs, people trying to prepare it themselves, or those who actually eat the poisonous organs as a delicacy. But like everything there are of course risks, and who knows if your chef had an off day today? The chef holds your life in his hands, and I won’t say I’m not nervous about the entire experience.
We enter the quiet restaurant and look around. On the first floor there is a tiny entrance way with a small room to one side and a tiny sushi bar with a lady smiling at us behind it. I really hope this isn’t the whole place, it seems rather….well….empty. It’s obvious we don’t speak Japanese so the host smiles at us and leads us upstairs. The upstairs of the restaurant is much larger, lots of small rooms with tables to one side, and a few tables and booths along the back wall. We wander past several groups of diners enjoying their meal while we are shown to our table. This appears to be much better, even at this late hour on a Sunday night, the restaurant seems to be doing at least a decent clip of business and it calms my nerves greatly.
We are sat at a small table in the back of the restaurant. Next to us are two booths with one hosting two women enjoying what looks like fugu hotpot. The overall tone in the restaurant is rather quiet, a few muted conversations can be heard around us but little else.
What to Eat?
We are handed our menus, and they are extensive. I had not realized there were so many ways to eat fugu, let along so many different preparations of it. I guess it was finally time for us to pick our poison…ok bad use of words there. They offered several multiple course set menus as well as several single item options.
Our voices have silenced as we both mull over the menu, constantly looking the choices available to us, and which ones we will venture to try. We both agreed to just order several of the single items for both of us to try, given that we may not even like the food, why order two large set meals of them. We order fugu sashimi, deep fried fugu, fugu bbq, and deep fried fugu-skin sashimi with cayenne pepper.
While we wait for our drinks to arrive the waiter drops off two small bowls at our table, this is the appetizer that is part of our sitting fee. I poke it around with my chopsticks a bit a bit before taking a small bite….it’s definitely fish. “Is it fugu?” Patrick inquires to me. At a restaurant that servers exclusively fugu, small fish pieces can only be those. It seems our adventurous meal that we had been talking about for the last several days has finally begun. The appetizer itself was pretty good, small pieces of fish among some little green vegetable things. Slightly chewy the fish seemed to take on the flavor of the items around it. It was nothing spectacular but not too bad either.
Next came up what was probably more align with what I was expecting to be getting, the fugu sashimi. This was unlike any other sashimi I had previously seen. The slices of fish were cut so thing you could see the color of the plate sitting below it. I questioned whether this was done simply for style or out of necessity. I picked up a small limp slice with my chopsticks looking it over closely. I slowly dipped it in the small dish of soy sauce trying to hold it so it didn’t slip away and took a bite. Soy sauce was basically the only overpowering flavor of this bite so I tried it again without any added sauces to get a taste of just the fish itself. The fugu really lacked much of a discernible flavor only really taking on the flavor of the things around it.
As the pieces started to pass I started to slowly question why I partook in this meal, why I bothered trying the food. I still had yet to try something I enjoyed and with each bite I still felt nervous about the choice of cuisine. While we were still consuming our small slices of sashimi the waiter brought out the deep fried fugu. They looked like little fried wedges, and piping hot to the touch. Biting in the fish itself was thick and had a flaky tender feeling to it. A tough bone centered within each of the slices so one couldn’t simply just pop it in their mouth. The taste itself was nice, especially with the lime squeezed upon it. So far my favorite of the dishes presented to us.
Up next was our deep fried fugu skin with cayenne pepper which appeared to mimic spicy curly fries more than fish. The taste itself was great, light in weight with a crisp crunch and a slight bit of spice. However a few pieces in and I felt a bit choked up in the throat, sweat starting to gather on my forehead. I couldn’t figure if this was the spice or something more sinister. The spice itself was far lower than most things I could handle with ease and on an occasion a small tingle on the tongue made me wonder if it was simply my mind playing tricks on me or if the fish was making it known the meal was not done quite yet.
The last piece of the meal was yet to come, the fugu barbeque. The waitress herself brought it out with the little grill and went about to cook all of it for us. Probably figuring us first timers sitting here looking confused would probably not do an adequate job. This course made me the most nervous, seeing the large raw fish pieces, several with different shades of color and noticeable veins coloring the outside of the parts. I sat there with chopsticks at hand watching as the waitress marinated the pieces and slowly turning them over on the grill wondering which pieces would grace my plate and whether it was the piece I wanted. The pieces themselves there grilled to a light brown with a slightly chewy texture to them. Overall the taste of the meat was excellent however I tend to attribute this more to the sauces used than the fish itself.
As we finished our last few pieces, I lay my chopsticks down, take a few last photos of menus and such and look over at Pat. He gives me a bit of a half smile as he thumbs through the menus and the different pamphlets laying near our table. We sit there waiting for our bill while we make small talk and looks of relief seem to color our faces more than thoughts of contentment.
So you may be asking was it worth it? Well if you were to ask if eating fugu is worth dying for…I would have to say no. It is in the end just a meal and not what I would say was an overly exceptional one either. However was the experience overall worth it? Well I suppose that is for each individual who tries it to decide. It has its allure and its value but it’s clearly not an overwhelming and amazing dining experience. One may say I may not be refined enough to savor the flavors of the fish as I tended to find it a bit bland in taste. I may try it again, but it would not be my choice of last meals and I certainly don’t think I will be a frequent patron of the dish.
However given my travels over in Japan this was definitely a unique and fascinating experience. I had long wondered about the allure and draw of fugu. I am overall glad I had tried the experience, it would be better than knowing and wondering how it would be. So why take the risk? I suppose you could ask why we take any risk whether sensible or stupid.
With any thing you do you take all the precautions you can like being ready, going to a reputable place, or whatever else but there will always be a risk I suppose. In the end however it comes down to a simple moment where we make the choice.
Do we take the bite or do we still simply sit and continue to wonder what if.