Friday, January 29, 2010
I Want My Fugu!
There’s a question on my mind, and it’s one I’ve mulled over for years, ever since Homer Simpson demanded fugu (河豚) at a Japanese restaurant, that time when the sushi chef was out canoodling Ms. Krabappel on the backseat of her car. Cue assistant chef’s stressful splicing and dicing of the deflating delicacy.
For those precious insular types without an operational TV who may’ve missed this episode, and double-up on the offense by having no access to Wikipedia or even a moth-eaten edition of the Encylopædia Britannica, fugu is the Japanese name for blowfish, and the majority of these fish have extremely high levels of a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin in their ovaries, liver, intestines, gonads and skin.
These little fellas, with a penchant for getting sizable relatively quickly, in fact get honorable mention on both Wikipedia and in the Britannica for being the second most-poisonous vertebrates in the world. There’s also no antidote. That doesn’t seem to faze the Japanese, though - apparently some 10,000 tons are consumed here each year.
When I first came over from Australia, I really had no choice but to play Homer and indulge in the expensive dish, and the best way to have fugu is sashimi-style, sliced exceptionally thin and raw, and served with a special dipping sauce called ponzu (a canny blend of citrus juice and soy sauce).
You can also have it deep fried or conjured up in a nabe (hot pot), but for me it’s sensational as sashimi, combined with fugu hirezake: Toasted fugu fin served in hot saké. It smells a wee bit fishy, but has quite the celebratory kick to it.
You can usually tell the fugu eateries by the huge store-front tanks full of the fish: Swimming, carousing, looking a little the worse-for-wear, and occasionally floating listlessly upside down.
The allusion of those bottom up types runs a little close to home when it comes to fugu.
Both in fiction and reality the fish has had a huge impact on the culture of this country. While it’s the foodstuff of kings (but not the emperor, apparently), lauded in haiku, and all Japanese office workers with big annual bonuses aspire to tuck into the aquatic delight, there’s a hint of the morbid and suicidal involved, along with some mention of egos quashed. Fugu, while outrageously priced, is the Russian roulette of the wining and dining set - and fatality is, after all, the great leveler.
Theatrical rumor has it that the flamboyant Chairman Kaga (played by actor Takeshi Kaga), of Iron Chef notoriety, died of fugu poisoning after the series ended in Japan, but kabuki star Bando Mitsugoro VIII really did die (of paralysis and asphyxiation) just hours after a stint in a Kyoto restaurant in 1975 - having thrown care to the winds, boasting invulnerability, and tossed down four of the fish’s highly-toxic livers.
And then there’s that question I hinted at earlier, the one that’s followed me ever since I saw Homer carted off to hospital with suspected fugu poisoning.
The origin of the fish’s consumption in Japan remains unclear - it definitely goes back centuries, and there’ve been possible fugu table scraps found in burial mounds that date back to the Jomon Period, over 2,400 years ago.
The question for me is this: Who were the very first people who decided to snack on this exceptionally unattractive fish, and how on earth did they work out which bits were OK for consumption, and which other parts would grant them slow, excruciating death?
Were short staws involved? Furry dice? Some kind of class-system pecking order? Or just manic rounds of jan-ken-pon (rock-paper-scissors)?
Personally, every time I eat fugu (which has actually been only twice), I canonize the experience - then spend the rest of the night fretting that I’ll die in my sleep, much like the unluckier pioneers of aquatic vertebratic cuisine before me.