Saturday, July 7, 2012

First meal after landing in Japan: Fugu

Prior to leaving for Japan, I've told everyone that I would try fugu, the extremely poisonous puffer fish, as my first meal. Guess what? I did! Most fugu places are really expensive but I decided to go to a chain restaurant called Toragfugu-Tei (http://www.torafugu.co.jp/en/) as they offered a reasonable price to try out the delicacy. They have many locations throughout Tokyo and the greater area. I went to the branch in Asakusa near Senso-ji which is a famous temple as it was near my hostel. Fugu does have the reputation of being very dangerous as its poison is much more potent than cyanide. However, it is extremely rare, especially in a restaurant, where someone gets poisoned as these chefs are licensed by the Japanese government: http://www.gadling.com/2007/08/22/big-in-japan-the-subtle-art-of-eating-blowfish-part-ii/ . Pretty much, the majority of the cases of poisonings that do happen are from fugu prepared by amateur chefs and fishermen. Even if one does get poisoned, there's less than 10% where one dies (http://www.tofugu.com/2012/06/07/fugu-japans-deadliest-catch/). Due to modern advances in healthcare, a person who has been poisoned by fugu is hooked up to an artificial respirator, or perhaps other treatments or a combination of, where he or she rides out the poison until the body gets rid of it (http://www.chemistryviews.org/details/ezine/1312657/The_Chemists_Fear_of_the_Fugu__Part_2.html). Otherwise, it's very unlikely you'll get poisoned.

Fears aside, if you're concerned about the language barrier when ordering fugu from this place, they do provide English menus. As I didn't want to spend too much for my first meal, I opted to order the following items a la carte: Oyogi-Tessa (very thinly sliced fugu sashimi) and Karaage (fried pieces of fugu). If you want to order the set menus which I must say are of good value, you need to bring a person along as it's for 2+ people (prices are per person). For my drink I ordered Hire-sake which is Nihon-shu (sake) heated with a fin of fugu. As the waiter served me my drink, he ignited the vapors of the alcohol with a match and then put it out. Note: sake is a general term for wine level alcohol (~15% alcohol by volume). The Japanese actually refer what we think of as sake (rice wine) as "Nihon-shu" (translates as Japanese alcohol). In addition to receiving my drink, I received a complementary dish (which I assume was included with the 5% service fee as most Japanese restaurants either have no tip or they add a cover charge (otoshi) in which they give you a small plate of food with it) of Kawa-sashi which is sashimi of fugu skin with watercress, japanese citris, green onion, mentaiko (spicy marinated cod roe), and ponzu (citrus-marinated soy sauce). After my first sip of fugu sake, I had my first real bite of fugu with this dish. I was worried that it would be bland as people who have tried it says it is but it tasted amazing. It was probably due to the ponzu that gave it most of the flavor.

Next came the Oyogi-tessa. It's arranged in a pattern that represents the petals of a chrysanthemum flower which is the flower used for Japanese funerals in order to associate the dish to its notoriety of death. Directions of how to eat their dishes are listed on their menus in English so that you wouldn't have to worry about how to do so. What you would do is drizzle the citrus all over the fish, add the condiments (green onion, watercress, mentaiko, fugu skin) in the center of the piece of fugu, roll up the condiments with the fugu with your chopsticks (in Japanese: "O-hashi"), slightly dip it in the ponzu (not drown it as the sauce can overpower the delicacy of the fish), and pop it in your mouth. You might notice a slight tingle/numbness that could either be from the trace amounts of poison on the fugu (in most cases, you'll be fine) or it could be from the spiciness of the mentaiku. Even though some say fugu is bland, if you've been eating sushi/sashimi for a while, you'll notice how the the flavors of the fugu are subtle and clean (not fishy) as the slight dip of ponzu pairs well with it.
 


After the Oyogi-tessa came the dish that I was really surprised about, the fugu karaage. It was seasoned really well and not overly salty. You would sprinkle the citrus over the fried pieces and dig in. Just note that there are bones in the dish so be careful when chewing into it.

I hear that if you really want to have good fugu, you would have to try it out in Osaka or Fukuoka or anywhere on the island of Kyushu. Be that as it may, my meal at Torafugu-Tei (Asakusa branch) was very delicious and would recommend going if you just want to simply try it out in Tokyo instead of blowing wads of cash at more high end places. On my way out after telling the staff that my meal was very delicious and appreciated my comments, I came across a really high structure at night which happened to be the newly built Sky Tree in Oshiage. Six days later, I ended up walking to the base of it and let me tell you: it's really tall!
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