The Haiku poet Tosa Buson wrote: I cannot see her tonight I have to give her up, so I will eat fugu
Blowfish, is one of the most poisonous vertebrates in the world, perhaps the golden frog of South America, as the chef gets interrupted, he bends forward to try and explain. But in reality, restaurant blowfish are probably safer than eating sushi, the toxin is concentrated in the fish’s liver and reproductive organs, and there hasn’t been a fatality in a restaurant in many years, or is there?
Now step into Ajiman’s auditorium, a family business, a small restaurant located in Roppongi, away from the bustle of the streets. Ajiman consists of a counter and 4 private rooms and serves only fugu opening during fugu seasons from September to May, and no doubt is one of the hardest reservations to get during the peak period. The father and son, are the main act, and the wives do the hard work, yet the chef’s never stopped moving serving VIP guests.
But for many foreigners, it’s not important because Fugu scares them away, it is a ritual food, a food which has a certain stigma, and many claims it is tasteless. This reminds me of a story where I had a friend travel all the way from Switzerland to have a long weekend enjoying Japanese foods and asked I arrange something special. I’ll never forget his reaction when I told him we would eat fugu, and on top of it, his wife had dietary restrictions. He lived to tell his version of the story and we remain close friends.
Fugu is a simple fish, it lives in the deep seas between Japan and Korea and whenever I eat it I think about how I can best describe my passion for fugu. I have had many encounters with fugu in my life, and one that pops out was when I had an invitation by a friend, he wanted to take us for a special meal in Asakusa’s, and it just so happened to be one of those famous fugu restaurants. That was an experience from hell, and when we walked in, I nearly jumped out of my skin. I couldn’t believe it, the restaurant had a faux stream and seating around the waterways. The fish were kept alive in tanks and let out to swim, and you picked your own fugu. All I could say to myself is, holly fucking shit, I am never going to eat this crap. To make a long story short, my wife helped me, and I didn’t let a piece enter my mouth, and don’t ask me how, but she was full by the end of it.
When I first came to Japan, I helped a Japanese traveler, he was from Kyoto, and in return, his family offered to invite me for dinner. We ate at their home and as the alcohol poured, the father became lucid and disappeared returning with shoe boxes and opened them showing off his charting of the foreign currencies for the past 20 years.
The story goes on, the next day, the son met me at Tawaraya, and asked me how I enjoyed my stay. I told him, I was annoyed about the night before where I was obliged to stay at Hiragiya, and without any warning, he called the front desk and summoned the owner. He vanished, and I was confronted with the owner of Tawaraya apologizing. I was so embarrassed by her courteous Japanese elegance as she kneeled before me, I tried to help her up not knowing much about Japan, I was just caught off guard. Then I met the family for lunch, and after lunch, the son, went outside and in broad daylight “pissed” into the river, I was appalled and decided not to see him again.
Ah, the story continues: now wind forward five years, and I was walking in Shibuya station and I hear someone calling my name, and I turn around and there he is. He apologizes and in shame (I suppose) invites me to another dinner with his family in Kyoto, and he insists on handing me his card.
A month later I returned to Kyoto for dinner and when I arrived at the restaurant everyone was inside. I didn’t recognize the restaurant and it wasn’t until I sat down I was told, “tonight fugu”. I was stunned, my paranoia set in, and I thought, okay here we go: I shamed him in front of his family, so now we all die.
I waited and the fugu sashimi was served, and the host insisted “dozo” go first, and I insisted they started. It was out of a movie, and it went back and forth until I took my first bite. But, within a few seconds, I excused myself to the men’s room, and I spat it out.
I felt dizzy, and was I being poisoned over such a small shame? This provokes the insanity behind fugu, or is it a tradition? The idea of the last meal, a scared fish, a lethal poison, respect for mother nature, the idea of not controlling your own fate, a western phenomenon, and the ultimate death. If poisoned you are absolutely aware of what is going on when poisoned, yet you cannot move an inch, and it is a slow death. The Japanese Emperor is forbidden from even touching fugu, and in the Edo period (1603-1867) samurai were ordered to extinguish their family lines if they became poisoned, a kind of bad luck, and fatalistic if you ate it. Testing yourself, your power and your destiny.
Here is how poisonous Fugu is, lethal doses are defined as the amount in milligrams needed to kill 50 percent of the animals tested;
Powerful toxins (lethal dose): 1) anthrax (0.0002); 2) cone shell (0.004); 3) textrodoxotine in the blue ring octopus and puffer fish (0.008); 4) inland taipan snake (0.025); 5) eastern brown snake (0.036); 6) Dubois’s sea snake (0.044); 7) coastal taipan snake (0.105); 8) beaked sea snake (0.113); 9) western tiger snake (0.194); 10) mainland tiger snake (0.214); 11) common death adder (0.500).
Some fugu are poisonous and some aren’t, but even experts can’t explain why. Some scientists believe fugu is not naturally toxic. They have argued that fugu gets the poison from ingesting tetrodotoxin-laden vibrio bacteria that is found in creatures that pufferfish such as starfish, worms and shellfish Others disagree, saying a fugu’s toxicity is produced by poison glands beneath the skin. Scientists in Nagasaki have raised nonpoisonous fugu by feeding them a diet of mackerel and other non-poisonous food. Fugu aficionados who have eaten these fish say they taste just as good as fugu with lethal organs.
Fugu bones have been found in burial mounds from the Jomon period (10,000 B.C. to 300 B.C.). Fugu was mentioned in Japan’s first historical records, written in 720. In the late 1500s, fugu was banned by Toyotomi Hideyoshi after a mass poisoning of troops took place before an invasion of Korea. The ban remained in place for 200 years until, one story goes, Japan’s first prime minister Hirobumu Ito ate some and survived and enjoyed it so much he demanded that the ban be lifted.
Blowfish isn’t exclusive to Japanese Korean blowfish, famously prepared in the city of Busan, is reasonably priced, cooked not served raw and served to accompany an evening of drinking. It is served with none other than garlic and with a few different kinds of kimchi, potato salad, and dime-size fried pancakes.
Poison blowfish used to require a license but nowadays you can buy the flesh already cleaned. However, if you go for the real deal, it must come directly from the south of Japan, it could pass the fish market but barely. And remember, if it is farmed or kept in a tank just forget it – avoid any fish in a tank it is unhealthy and can be easily contaminated.
Ah, I live for Fugu sashimi, and there is no other experience quite like it: https://mesubim.com/2015/01/15/fugu-pro-video-michelin/ and this, by the way, is thinly cut fugu.
But stop here if you are are not curious about how such a simple fish is so complex, don’t read further. People often tell me, “oh, fugu it is so expensive and has no taste”. You may have had elaborate meals in your life, but the Fugu’s fins steeped in sake, andlite on fire, or those jellied strips of skin and flesh are cut one of two ways; thick or thin as seen above (movie) and in the picture below. The transparent petals of sashimi arranged into mosaics of Japanese design combined with ankimo, the liver of monkfish, and or ponzu and onion, a man’s dream come true.
All parts of the fish are consumed, a “uni-meal” of a single species, and it is not for everyone, especially westerners who are not accustomed to eating important Japanese delicacies such as the Fugu’s testicles. They are runny, wet and gooey as you would expect, and the golden crispness of the outside sack, which holds the treasure. They remind me of white truffles but don’t ask me why I adore Shirako, it is just a sensational and a touch of sudachi, Japanese citrus widens the mouth warming experience.
Fugu is a fish that doesn’t have a precise taste, it is quite neutral as are most white fish, so it is more about texture and taste than flavor. Actually the flavor comes more from the ponzu, and the dashi served with minced onion. Fugu is a combination of fish parts, cold, chewy, and served even as jelly (nikogori) or near to the end served fried (Karrage) and or cooked as Nabe, it is incredible.
But the piece de resistance is Zosui, the rice porridge with eggs not shaken, stirred, and when that hits your gut, you feel it is all over.
Imagine our brains stick to what we know, and that’s obvious. We are all used to foods we love, and our taste receptors lead us down a path sometimes where we are enlightened. For many, it is fat, and of course, most adore umami, the flavor of savory foods, but think of food this way. Self-gratification is designed differently for most of us, obviously, we mostly eat foods we are used to and prefer. That just about sums up most people’s eating habits.
Now step back for a second, and think again. Food is about quality, ingredients, style, atmosphere the chef’s technique and in the end comfort and we often equate that with service. I truly understand there is nothing worse than eating blind, not knowing what you are tasting, or having something that is unusual or unwanted.
Think about how the atmosphere influences our taste, and I think of L’amis Louis in Paris: https://mesubim.com/2019/09/27/chez-lamis-louis/Michelin an experience in Paris, it is butter and cream, or the millefeuilles, or a kaiseki dinner in a room immaculately designed to heighten our senses. The immeasurable importance of light, and the sensation of decadence, something we all describe differently.
In Italy the perfection of pasta and sauce topped with grated Parmigiano: https://mesubim.com/2015/04/25/pasta-perfect-video-don-alfonso/
And in Japan, sushi, the sensation of raw fish, do we believe sushi has taste? Yes, it does 100%, but shiromi, sushi’s white fish doesn’t have an iota of flavor more than fugu flesh. It is the chef’s rice and the umami of his nikiri, the brushstroke of any chef that adds the final touch.
But too often foodies get trapped in their own vices, people confuse the idea of eating food that they will enjoy with the idea of eating food that is exclusive. I’ll never forget the story of an important American businessman who was traveling to Japan and asked me for some advice about his itinerary. One restaurant on his list is a very well-known restaurant in Kyoto serving Japanese snapping turtle “suppon”.
I asked myself how can a good old styled fat Jewish businessman who is used to eating bagels and cream cheese become accustomed to experiencing Japanese snapping turtles? I tried to warn them to stay away, and he explained to me that it was on the recommendation of a very important Japanese chef, so he wanted to go. I won’t tell you what happened, in the end after three hours of eating Japanese lime green snapping turtle, and drinking the blood, he was throwing up.
But Japanese blowfish is different, what is different about it is the experience of eating something which would not be problematic for any foodie. And mostly due to the fact that it has not one aroma or taste that is offensive. There isn’t something about it except the idea that it is poisonous and of course if you would eat liver or organs, yes as I explained you would have a slow death.
Actually some 20 years ago, a friend decided that he wanted to taste some liver when he was in Shimoneski, the capital for fugu, and the chef let him taste a very small amount. Shortly thereafter when he went back to the room he was slightly paralyzed and couldn’t even pick up the phone to call reception. He was awake and gasping, he fell asleep and awakened alive.
The blowfish is a journey, a culinary journey and not one of death. This is something that you have to begin to understand if you have the intention to eat Japanese blowfish. In the west we don’t have this concept, food is a journey but it’s a journey about your own personal satisfaction. You can say the same thing about eating any food, but if you stand back and look at it from the outside looking in, you begin to understand that there is an important history behind this fish, and more importantly, it’s a ritual of eating courses; those courses are designed in a way to take you on taste journey.
So the irony is that the fish doesn’t really have any taste and it’s more about temperature and texture. And during the journey, you ponzu of monkfish passed through a Chinois, so it is very rich. You take onion, fresh The ultra-fine Koto negi, a fine green onion and you make a combination with the flesh.
Then you have fried and again the fish is neutral, yet the technique used by flouring the flesh, and bones, and it is fried until it is golden brown and the idea of having a “cat tongue”. This refers to a Japanese word for someone who cannot handle hot food or drinks so you will find them blowing on the food to cool it down and this term In Japan is coined as Nekojita, cat’s tongue. It is scalding hot, so watch out, the challenge of eating these foods and the intensity of flavor, the sea’s umami.
Anyway, it’s certainly not dangerous but luckily it is uber costly, and a good restaurant is difficult to get into, and this cuts out the amateurs. Think about it, famously remarked that the taste is worthy of death, the testicles, a hidden ocean treasure, intense umami, and the gentle spice added to the ponzu, the wonders and powers of mother nature never fail to interest us, does it?
106-0032 Tokyo, Minato City, Roppongi, 3 Chome−8−8