Saturday, December 10, 2011

Odd Bedfellows on a Plate

If you grew up in the 1960s or ‘70s you’d probably remember a kids’ book by Dr. Seuss titled One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.

Alternatively, if you’re a child of the ‘90s you may recall an episode of The Simpsons titled “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”.

It’s the episode in which Bart Simpson and family make a visit to a new sushi bar called The Happy Sumo, and Homer demands fugu while the chef is out canoodling Edna Krabappel on the backseat of her car.

Cue assistant chef’s stressful splicing and dicing of the deflating delicacy.

For those who may have missed this cartoon, fugu is the Japanese name for blowfish or pufferfish of the Tetraodontidae family, the majority of which have extremely high levels of a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin in their ovaries, liver, intestines, gonads and skin.

The Encyclopædia Britannica has labeled fugu the second most-poisonous vertebrate in the world and there is no antidote to the poison – a fact that doesn’t seem to faze Japanese consumers, however, since some 10,000 tons are eaten here each year.

When I first arrived in Japan in 2001 I really had no choice but to play Homer Simpson and indulge in the expensive dish, which can cost anywhere between ¥4,000 (US$50) and ¥20,000 (US$250) depending upon the restaurant, the quality of the serving, the size, and the kind of dish.

The most common 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). Each piece is almost transparent and the texture softer than most other fish. The impression is that it discreetly dissolves in your mouth.

The delicacy is also deep fried or conjured up in a nabe (hot pot), and often combined with fugu hirezake: Toasted fugu fin served in hot sake. It smells a wee bit fishy, but has quite the celebratory kick to it.

You can usually tell the fugu eateries by the huge storefront 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 and fugu is quite often lauded in traditional haiku. While its price sets the dish up as the foodstuff of kings (but not the emperor, who is not allowed to partake), many Japanese office workers with big annual bonuses aspire to tuck into the marine delight.

Even so there is a hint of the morbid and fatalistic involved. Fugu, while outrageously priced, could be viewed as the Russian roulette of the wining and dining set – and mortality is, after all, the great leveler.



Jeffrey said...

My father-in-law loves this stuff. Part of it is, I'm sure, the "casting fate to the wind" aspect of eating something that done just a bit wrong will kill you.

Supposedly, you can tell you've got the real thing if it makes your lips a bit numb. Perhaps it's a bit of self-reinforcement - you think your lips should be a bit numb and, gosh darn it!, they are (either that or you're dead).

Andrez Bergen said...

Ha Ha Ha - precisely, Jeffrey, though I don't remember my lips going numb when I partook (I probably would have passed out with stress if they had!!).