Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Japanese Fugu: 日本のふぐ

Spending two weeks in Japan was quite the trip.  It’s hard to know where to even begin.  Flashing lights that put Vegas to shame, eight story arcades, bullet trains, incomprable politeness, and plutonium powered 1.21 gigawatt toilets.  The differences are indescribable, but the similarities in our shared regard for good food, drink, sport, fashion, literature, etc. are ever prevalent.  We’re all the same at the end of the day with the same appreciation of quality and attention to detail, the latter being especially Japanese.

Unfortunately, to my dismay, it was not exactly Oyster season (poorly planned on my part, but job transitions happen when they happen, giving me two weeks for a vacation).  All of the Japanese Oysters I had were straight spawn bombs, but there were a few nice Australian Rock Oysters I tried, namely the Coffin Bay.

However, out of all the nigiri, kaki, izakayas, ramen, and wagyu, one particular dining experience stood out above all others.  It was the perfect blend of refined product and execution mixed with genuine “mom’n’pop” hospitality.

As soon as a decided I was going to Japan, I knew I was going to find a solid Fugu dinner.  Fugu is the infamous poisonous blowfish that if not prepared correctly, can kill you within 24-48 hours from tetrodotoxin.  You may be familiar with it from the Simpsons Episode, among other media, of course.  Just one drop is enough to kill three people.  The poison lies primarily in the fish’s skin and liver.  One must be properly trained and licensed to serve it.  The final examination actually consists of the trainee preparing his own Fugu and eating all by himself.  Some eat to live, others live to eat, but in Japan, they go as far to eat that which may kill you.

Yet, nowadays, much Fugu is farm-raised and thus not poisonous, seeing as how their poison is derived from the coral and creatures they eat in the wild.  I wanted the proper thing.  So, I did my research, headed to Kyoto, and went to a small place named Fukushin. It’s basically one 70-something-year-old master who’s been preparing Fugu since the 60’s along side his wife.  His son/apprentice is now licensed as well and prepared my meal.

When I walked in on a cloudy Wednesday, I was the only customer.  A bit nerve-wrecking at first, but nothing a few sakes and Asahis couldn’t handle. Keeping in mind that I spoke no Japanese and they knew no English, I did my best to get right into it.

“Tennen Fugu A Course, shite kudasai”

He first pulled out the entire broken down blowfish and presented to me, upon my hand-gestured/written request.  Then, he proceeded to break it down piece-by-piece, setting aside specific pieces for different cooking methods.

Tepi Fugu Kawa: First course was the blowfish subdermis collagen served with finely shredded daikon radish and wakame.  The most incredible thing about this course is that a little bit of the tetrodotoxin from the skin stays in the gelatinous subdermis, making your lips a little numb as you eat it.  Quite the savory, crunchy, and mildly frightening experience all wrapped into one.


Fugu Tesa: Second course was Fugu sashimi, which was the only course the 70-year-old master stepped up for.  Thinly sliced pieces of Fugu loin with pickled daikon and chives meant to be dipped into ponzu.  

Honestly, it wasn’t the most memorable portion of the meal.  It makes sense, though, if you think about it.  White meat vs. dark meat.  Which tastes better?  Let’s all try and steer clear of those flavorless filet mignons and all-white-meat chicken breasts and opt for the more flavorful bone-in cuts.

Yakifugu: Third course.  This portion was straight bad ass I don’t mind saying.  A cinder block sized grill was placed directly in front of me with white-hot charcoal searing away.  The kind cook placed one collar and one tailpiece on the grill for my enjoyment.  Salt, pepper, char, and a little lemon was all the accoutrement necessary for these delectable bites.  I felt a little bit embarrassed as I was gnawing on the bones, but I saw their appreciation of how much I was enjoying it.



  
Torafugu Karage: Fourth Course.  Anything deep fried is good, naturally.  But the potato starch breaded Japanese style of deep-frying called karage is especially delightful.  Sweet and succulent bone-in collar and loin cuts with fried shitake mushrooms and shishito peppers are tough to beat.  Aside from the delciousness, it was at this point I accidentally dropped my chopsticks (poor form) on to the table only to be followed by terrified gasps by my hosts.  It took me a few minutes to realize why they were so scared….poisoned!  In the broader sense, yes.  Inebriated by delicious bottles of Asahi lager and sake, but no tetrodotoxin.


Tecchiri Fugu Nabe: Fifth Course.  Claypot Nabe style.  Definitely the heartiest, rib-sticking part of the meal.  Enoki mushroom, tofu, napa cabbage, chewy potato noodles, and the meatier cuts of fugu, all cooked in piping hot dashi broth with pickled ginger on the side.  Rich and well-seasoned.  The best bit was the boiled mochi.  A simple glutinous rice cake boiled in dashi stock ended up being one of the tastiest parts of the meal.

I also invited the lovely family to join me in a friendly libation at the fifth course, as they were so gracious and kind to me.  We all had a few sips of beer and what minimal
conversation could be had broadened.  The most hilarious point was when my server, the son’s wife, managed to ask me where I was from.  I said “California” and she chuckled, paused, and said in her best Austrian accent “I’ll be back.”  Arguably the most adorable part of the entire evening. 

Hirezake and Andes Melon:  Final course. Few people might think fish flavored alcohol sounds good, but believe me, it’s incredible.  Hirezake is the dorsal fin of Fugu grilled super hot and dried for five days.  It’s then placed in hot sake, lit on fire, and capped to seal in the flavor.  Opening any less then thirty seconds later would be blasphemy.  The abounding aromatics stun you upon opening.  This, followed by a delicious and world-renowned Hokkaido melon capped off the evening as the perfect desert. 



People have argued that Fugu is too pricey for too little flavor.  You’re paying for the thrill of the bite, not the taste.  However, when enjoying proper wild Fugu at Fukushin in Kyoto, it’s worth every yen.  Incomparable succulence and service.  The family was even kind enough to give me a gift of a tea cup and Fugu poster when I left.  If you ever find yourself in Kyoto, Fukushin is certainly my main recommendation. It reminded that while food may help to identify race, creed, or culture, its base is blind in good times with great people.

カンパイ,
The SF Oysternerd

2 comments:

  1. Great stuff and sounds a fantastic experience. Hope you took life insurance before you went!
    Cheers/Nigel

    ReplyDelete
  2. drooling dude. i am JEEEEEEEEALLOUS

    ReplyDelete