One of my personal highlights when travelling is trying new food and I’ve eaten many curious items over the years – so it seemed only natural for me to want to try fugu in Japan.
For those who don’t know, fugu is the Japanese word for pufferfish. Not so remarkable, you might think, until you discover that it contains highly poisonous parts. These deadly bits are largely the organs such as the liver, which is never served, but if the fish is prepared incorrectly, eating fugu can kill you.
(If you’re confused by the difference between pufferfish and blowfish, don’t be – they are two different words for the same thing.)
There are strict laws in place in Japan to regulate the production and serving of fugu, which is only permitted by highly trained chefs. The importance of this trainining is highlighted by the fact that deaths commonly occur when unskilled people try to prepare the fish at home (I’m assuming the DIY fugu chefs watch videos on You Tube before accidentally committing suicide by fugu…that’s probably how I’d do it).
The poison in the fish, tetrodotoxin (I can’t pronounce it either), paralyses its victim’s muscles leaving them conscious until they slowly die from asphyxiation. Fortunately, death rates have been reduced in recent years with up to 6 deaths per year recorded between 1996 to 2006. But people do still die…and that fact was at the very front of my mind when I decided I wanted to spend my birthday dining on fugu.
Where I tried fugu
As mentioned, only specially skilled chefs are legally allowed to work in a fugu restaurant, which led me to the incorrect assumption that getting hold of fugu would be much like searching for the elusive unicorn (something I have still yet to track down but when I do, I’m thinking I’ll try it barbecued).
To my surprise, there are, in fact, many fugu restaurants in Japan. I was even more surprised to find that there is a fugu restaurant chain – Torafugu. Not quite a McDonalds of the fugu world (the prices alone set the two apart), but certainly a brand that has made a name for itself in this highly specialised cuisine.
It’s also noteworthy that Torafugu is the name of the type of fugu served at the restaurant. Torafugu is the most prized form of blowfish, as it is thought to be the most edible, but it is also the most poisionous…so that was reassuring…kind of…maybe?
I chose this restaurant for a couple of reasons – the prices seemed closer to affordable than others I’d seen quoted and, perhaps more importantly, there was an English language option on the website and tourists were welcome. In a situation where I was going to eat something potentially lethal, I wanted to be able to hear the instructions in my mother tongue so there was was no chance I’d misinterpret any comments like, “This is the liver. It may look nice, but even one lick will kill you, so please just eat around it.” and, worst-case scenario, not have to flick through my Japanese phrase book to find the translation for, “Please be a jolly good fellow and call me an ambulance, I suspect I may be dying from fugu poisoning”.
Due to its proximity to my accommodation, I chose one of the restaurant in Ueno…and I lived to tell this tale. (Disclaimer: I’m making no promises that if you eat in the same place, you will also live – that’s up the the chef!)
The restaurant was signposted only in Japanese so were it not for my iPhone map and my dad, my dining companion, spotting the live blowfish in a tank in the window, I would have walked passed the place. Nevertheless, as soon as I opened the door, we were welcomed inside.
The restaurant had an open-plan space with Western-style tables and chairs but we were shown to a private room that was a shoes-off affair and had a sunken table and tatami mat flooring. Courtesy of the ever so thoughtful Japanese, they had built in some space beneath the table to save our inflexible Western legs.
I’m not sure if we were offered this special room as a nice gesture for the foreigners or to keep the inexperienced fugu eaters away from the other diners. Either way, the room was nice and despite having a door and walls, we were still able to hear the chatter from main dining area, giving a good restaurant vibe – it was also reassuring to hear that the other diners were still alive.
(Note: the picture above was taken as I left – there is no way the Japanese would allow someone to start dinner at such a messy table!)
Our biggest ordering mistake came from the assumption that the best way to sample fugu is to try it in its myriad forms and for that reason we chose one of the set price menus – the Tora Fugu Course (6 items). At just under $50 each for 5 courses (including dessert), it seemed like a good deal. In reality, I would have paid $50 to not have to suffer through so much fugu (early indication that fugu has not become my favourite delicacy).
There were three set menus in total:
Lowest priced, around $40, medium priced, which we had, and the highest priced (around $70). All three menus were essentially the same except the lower priced option did not include the deep-fried fugu and the higher priced option included albino fugu (the purest/whitest part of the fish).
Hire Sake: Blowfish Tail Sake
I’ll confess to having drunk many disgusting brews in my life time, snake whisky from a glass jar containing a gigantic pickled snake amongst them, but fugu sake was something else. Out of all the things I tasted during my fugu meal, this was by far the most vile.
Pungent, sour, brown and warm with something that looked like a lung (not a liver) floating on top, I was presented with the exceptionally rare occasion of not being able to finish my drink through fear of vomiting. I wish I could identify a similar taste – perhaps regurgitated marmite (and I’m one of the few marmite fans) mixed with bile (I’m not so much of a bile fan).
If I were to give advice, I’d say steer clear of this drink at all costs (and speaking of which, the drink was priced separately to the set menu and was $7).
Kawa-Sushi: Parboiled Sashimi Skin
My first bite of fugu (after watching my dad try it and waiting to see if he keeled over), was no more impressive than sipping (and wincing through) the sake.
I love chicken skin, particularly the way my mum manages to make it all crispy and delicious. And, if cooked well, I’m also partial to a bit of salmon skin, so I had reasonably high hopes for the fugu sashimi skin, but those hopes were dashed within the first bite.
Instead of crisp, cruncy and full of flavour, the kawa-sushi comprised long threads that looked like glass noodles but were so rubbery I’m sure they could have doubled as exercise bands. The only real taste came from the spring onion it was mixed with and the soy sauce you dip it into. What was most memorable from the first taste was an anxiety of simply wanting to get the dinner over while the possibility of dying lingered like an unwelcome diner at the table.
Tessa: Blowfish Sashimi
The sashimi was one of my favourite parts of my fugu meal, but that is not to say it was a) particularly enjoyable or b) tasted anything like any other sashimi I’ve ever had. Tougher and with more of a plastic consistency compared to the delicious sashimi I’ve tasted with pleasing consistency throughout the entirety of Japan, this version was several cuts below par. I guess fugu isn’t a natural sashimi fish and after a couple of slices, I was willing the contents of my plate to disappear. However, in the spirit of making the most of the meal, I finished every last slither. Interestingly, this is the first time my sashimi has ever come with lime (to help soften the tough fish, perhaps?).
Deep Fried Fugu (A.K.A Kentucky Fried Fugu)
If there is one thing that’s true throughout the culinary world, it is this: even bad food tastes better when it’s breaded and deep fried. And that rule definitely applied to the deep friend fugu.
I’m not a huge fan of Kentucky Friend Chicken, which, to me, this course tasted like. White rubbery flesh inside dark, deeply fried (and then probably fried some more) breadcrumbs, I doubt KFCs customers could tell the difference – I certainly couldn’t. The only real difference was the substantive number of bones in the fish, making for tricky fried-fugu eating.
Tecchiri: Blowfish and Vegetables
Next came the main course. It started well as a bamboo basket containing what looked like paper was filled with hot water and set on a table-top hot plate, defying everything I ever knew about physics and burning paper. Using clever technology that can heat the basket full of water without the plate getting hot to the human touch, I watched with fascination as a piece of vegetable (I assume the Japanese equivalent of a bay leaf) was added to provide flavour. Yay – non-fugu ingredient.
Then things got really freaky!
I’ve been fishing a number of times in my life and I’m carnivore all the way (sorry, my veggie friends), but if there was ever a possibility that I would turn cuisine-green, it was the moment when the fresh fugu was brought in.
Covering a bed of vegetables (comprising cabbage, mushrooms and leeks), was the fresh fugu. Despite being flayed of it’s skin, which we’d just eaten, and de-eyed, the fish was still twitching.
Logic (and my dad) told me that it was just the nerves of the fish that were moving the flesh, and that the fish was most certainly dead and not suffering, but I couldn’t help feel distressed as the waitress lowered one moving part of the fish after another into the boiling water. I think my own nerves were twitching as much as the fugu’s.
Not a bit of the edible part of the fish was spared as one section after another was added to the water. Under strict instructions to wait 5 minutes before adding the remaining parts for a further 2 minutes, I stared at my watch not daring to be a second out.
And then it was time to eat.
Boney, slimey and pungent are the best words to describe our dinner. The boiled fugu didn’t come out looking very appetising, but then neither would premium cod – boiling fish simply doesn’t do it for me.
The tough sashimi skins had also put in a reappearance, this time warmed through, but still no better. Even the vegetables, tainted with the overpowering, unpleasant fish pungency, were not desirable. The final insult was two blocks of tofu (vile and pointless in my opinion, even if deep fried), which wobbled into a blancmange like state after being added to the water, offensively slithering around on my plate.
In honesty, the only part that made the dinner edible (as much as we could manage) was the soy sauce, which comprised spring onions and a wedge of unidentifable, seemingly tasteless red stuff.
After quitting while we were behind, with just over 3/4 of the fish eaten, about 45 minutes passed as we sipped on beer applauding our survival efforts and hoping for the waitress to return and clear away the now stinking fish bowl, and reward us with some yummy rice porridge. When the waitress didn’t show, we finally pressed the call button (the best invention for on-tap beer ever).
This time the chef came in and set about prepared our rice porridge in front of us…using the fish soup remains as a base! My heart sank as he added all of the makings for a yummy carb-course into the fetid fugu water – eggs, rice, seasoning, the lot. By this stage of the meal, the chef was the only person still smiling.
Of course, we gave the rice porridge a fair trial and it would have been delicious if I wasn’t already working hard to banish the taste of fugu from my slightly numbed lips (apparently common with fugu). After a couple of mouthfuls, I quit once again. it’s fair to say I was all fugued out.
Finally, after a couple of beers to try and eradicate the fugu taste, the dessert came and never have I been so pleased for plain vanilla ice-cream. A smidgen of red-bean paste and green-tea power covered jelly cubes added a touch of Japan and, picking the remains of fugu from our teeth, we eventually left with a pleasant taste in our mouth.
As is often the case with food experiments, it is the experience that can count more than the taste of the food. I’ve no doubt the quality of what we ate was excellent, it just wasn’t a food to my taste. But perhaps the fugu didn’t really stand a chance – after dining on Kobe beef days before, how could any other food compare?
If you’re thinking of trying fugu in Japan
Hopefully my description will not put you off trying fugu in Japan – it certainly is a unique an experience.
If you do decide to try it, I would highly recommend Torafugu restaurant for both the service and price (I will not blame the product on the restaurant).
My best tip would be to order off the a-la carte menu for a first visit to see if you like what is on offer. Jumping straight in with the whole six item set menu can be overwhelming and costly.
As an aside, this pen and paper with fax details was sat on our table creating endless jokes about faxing our last will and testament to our loved once.
Fortunately, it was necessary. I ate fugu in Japan and lived to tell the tale.
Have you ever tried fugu in Japan? Would you?
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