Fact File: Fugu

[foo-goo] is derived from the Japanese word "fuku", which means "to blow" or "happiness"


Buson's 18th century haiku on loss loses much of its poignancy without an understanding of the significance of fugu, commonly known as blowfish or puffer fish. Contemporary connoisseurs consider the delicate flesh of the fugu to be amongst the most exquisite and exotic experiences to be had anywhere. On the flipside, fugu has a deadly reputation rooted in fact.

The puffer fish gets its name from the fish's natural instinct to puff itself into a ball, in some cases, with protruding spines, when provoked or threatened. In the case of the Japanese name, the kanji characters for fugu literally translate as “river pig”. Though the fish can be found in oceans around the world, they typically like to congregate in brackish waters at the mouths of rivers.

Fugu has featured in Japanese literature and has been romanticized in haikus, as we have seen. For centuries, the Japanese have consumed the fish. Historical records show that fugu was a popular dish during the Tokugawa and Meiji periods (1603 – 1912) and was briefly banned by the authorities during both periods.

The Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health in Tokyo documents about 315 reported cases of fugu poisoning between 1996 and 2005, of which 31 were fatal. The most famous fatality reported was the result of illegal and improper serving of the fish. Kabuki actor Mitsugoro Bando VIII died after eating four servings of fugu liver in January 1975.

In fact, many species of puffer fish are perfectly safe for human consumption. Of the more than 100 species of puffers worldwide, about 38 are found in Japan, and 22 of them are edible.

It is believed that fugu gets its poison from the shell-fish consumed in the natural environment. A large part of this poison, known as tetrodotoxin, collects in the fish's liver and ovaries, thereby making these parts the most lethal. This means that fugu can be farmed to render them safe for consumption by regulating their diet. Studies undertaken by Japanese scientists have shown this to be true.

Shimonoseki, a port city in southwestern Japan which has earned the moniker of Fugu City, accounts for most of Japan's fugu exports to restaurants around the world, and half of Japan's fugu market.

Fishermen bring in their live catches to Shimonoseki, where expert and licensed workers skillfully gut and clean the fish before shipping them to restaurants throughout Japan or to overseas markets.

What this means is that the fugu that lands on your plate at a fugu restaurant in Japan is as harmless as the ubiquitous salmon sashimi from a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan, New York.

"I cannot see her tonight. I have to give her up so I will eat fugu." Yosa Buson

What Makes Fugu Special?

To the Japanese, fugu's allure lies in what they call a special umami – a clean and sweet taste, not a death-defying experience.The meat is texturally both crunchy and chewy – a sensational property the Japanese describe as shiko shiko. They also prize the fish for its seasonality, as it is typically consumed in winter. In theory, highly skilled fugu chefs are able to prepare the fugu in such a way that only a minute trace of the poison remains – enough to cause a shibireru, or numbing sensation of the lips and cheeks. This sensation is part of the allure of fugu. We say ‘in theory' because the farmed fugu available at restaurants is as safe as any other fish.

A single fish can easily fetch between US$50 and US$150 at a wholesale fish market in Japan, depending on the variety – the costliest of which is a prime tora or “tiger” fugu. A complete meal at a decent Japanese restaurant can cost upwards of US$200 per head (or more than 20,000 yen). Because fugu is high in protein, low in calories, and rich in taurine (found in energy drinks) and inosinic acid (which aids metabolism), it has high nutritional value. Its high collagen concentration should come as welcome news to women who desire beautiful skin. But those who are MSG-intolerant may not find fugu palatable, as the fish has high levels of glutamic acid.



How Is Fugu Prepared?

In Japan, restaurants that tout the fish on their menus require their chefs to be exam-certified with a “fugu license”. Essentially, this consists of a written exam in which applicants identify and differentiate the fugu species, separate traditionally toxic and non-toxic parts of the fish. These aspiring fugu chefs are also assessed on their proficiency in gutting and cleaning the puffers by a board of health inspectors.

Chefs who graduate the grueling course with flying colors receive certificates that are displayed at their respective restaurants. Traditionally, the chefs remove the fugu's innards and eyes using a fugu-hiki knife. Fins and tails are cut off but not thrown away. These later come in handy in the preparation of fugu hire-zake, which we shall cover in greater detail later.

Fugu Dishes

Served sashimi style, called fugu-sashi, with grated white radish, chives and limed-flavored ponzu sauce, fugu sashimi is probably the freshest sashimi you will ever taste. Ironically, the transparent shreds of fish are usually arranged in concentric circles to resemble a chrysanthemum. The chrysanthemum is the official seal of the Japanese emperor, the only person forbidden by law to this day from eating fugu.

Fugu can also be eaten in a hot-pot style, or fugu-chiri. The pieces of fish are simmered in konbu dashi broth with tofu, vegetables, mushrooms and seaweed, and dipped in ponzu sauce. Then there's fried fugu ribs, or fugu karaage. The ribs are chopped up, mixed with flour, deep-fried, and seasoned with salt. Rounding off the entrées is fugu-nabe, a porridge made with fugu remnants minus the innards and flesh, and served in a claypot with raw eggs, watercress, cabbage and chives. More adventurous diners can opt for the fugu's milt, or shira-ko, known amongst fugu connoisseurs as the crème de la crème of fugu. The shira-ko refers to the fugu's sperm sac, which, owing to the fish's spawning season in early spring, is an exotic treat, and a supposed aphrodisiac. It is usually eaten raw or lightly grilled.

Finally, fugu hire-zake, made by brewing smoked fugu tails and fins in hot sake, completes the meal, and the entire fugu experience.


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