Before tasting fugu for the first time I was told it might make my toes tingle. This, I was informed, was normal.
What I needed to be worried about, was if my throat tingled too.
“And if it does?” I asked my dining companion.
“You’re in trouble.”
I nodded, sagely. I knew the risks when I’d been invited to lunch. I was well aware that Fugu, aka pufferfish, was a Japanese delicacy that was both a luxury and the equivalent of restaurant Russian roulette.
According to National Geographic, the ovaries of the female puffer fish contain enough Tetrodotoxin to kill 30 adult humans and the liver and intestines are also potentially lethal. For this reason, if you decide to try it, it’s important to dine at establishments that serve pufferfish and NOTHING ELSE.
No curly fries, no garlic bread, no mozzarella sticks. Your fugu chef should not be multi-tasking. He shouldn’t have one eye on the potentially deadly fish he’s slicing and the other on the vegetarian risotto. That won’t end well. You want to live (I presume) and he doesn’t want to kill his customers, it’s bad for business and the Trip Advisor ratings would be brutal, so Japanese fugu chefs have one speciality and the restaurants, one dish.
Fugu chefs are also licensed, well-trained and very, very experienced. Or at least they should be. The most recent recorded deaths attributed to fugu have been the result of “amateur” chefs.
In most travel posts and gourmet food articles, fugu is a dish best served to nervous travel writers and gastronomes in thin sashimi slices arranged in the shape of a chrysanthemum. But, as I found out that day, there’s more than one way to prepare a deadly fish.
You can also have it deep fried.
In fact, the restaurant I ate at ONLY served it fried. And, just to further blow away my Western expectations, it wasn’t eaten in silent reverence in a tatami mat room while a geisha played a shamisen, but in a small, casual (for Japan) dining room surrounded by chattering locals and salarymen and women on their lunchbreaks.
So how did it taste?
Um, surprisingly bland.
Once you bit through the crunchy, light batter the texture of the fish was, to quote every food journalist and cannibal ever, a bit like chicken. I remember there being more taste in the garnish of shredded radish than the fish itself, but I was glad I’d tried it and, y’know, survived.
It was also interesting to experience a dish that is so often written about as a once-in-a-lifetime delicacy eaten in such a casual (for Japan) establishment. And while I don’t want to give the impression that everyone in Japan eats fugu like its KFC, in some parts of the country its availability is taken for granted in the same way that Australians take steak and prawns for granted. They’re eaten on special occasions, sure, but not exclusively so.
And, as with steak and prawns, you can also buy fugu at the supermarket.
But, if I were you, I wouldn’t.
FURTHER READING AND RESOURCES: