Big in Japan: The Subtle Art of Eating Blowfish (Part II)

This is a continuation of yesterday’s column on the Subtle Art of Eating Blowfish, and the second installment in a three-part series.

The best time to eat fugu is in the winter, when blowfish pack on the pounds to beat the chill. Needless to say, this is also when the toxicity of the blowfish reaches its peak.

Prices rise. Restaurants are packed. Emergency rooms are on stand-by.

Making sure you don’t meet your maker earlier than prescribed is the fugu chef, a man of exacting precision and immeasurable skill. With a calculated flick of the blade, the fugu chef separates the tender flesh from the poisonous internal organs.

To steal a line from a classic Simpsons episode:

‘Poison. Poison. Poison. Tasty Fish.’

Since the late 1950s, only specially-licensed chefs are allowed to serve fugu to the public. Much like brain surgery and rocket science, not just any average Joe (or in this case average Haruki) can slice up a blowfish. Indeed, an aspiring fugu chef must first serve for several years as an apprentice before they are allowed to take the certification test.

Earning your fugu license consists of three parts: a written test, a species identification test and the practical. Although most applicants breeze through the first two parts, less than two-thirds of apprentices are successful in preparing the blowfish for consumption. Thankfully, the examiners will notify the apprentice if he makes a mistake as not to lose any more students than is necessary.

(And you thought passing your calculus test was hard!)

Thankfully, the rigorous training process ensures that eating blowfish is a somewhat risk-free process. As testament, consider the fact that fugu is sometimes sold in supermarkets, so that you can enjoy eating fugu in the comfort of your own home. Then again, if you do get a bad batch, at least you can have the privilege of dying in your bed whilst surrounded by family and friends.

The high-price of fugu also prevents this deadly meal from becoming a daily staple. On average, a few strips of fugu sashimi costs upwards of ¥5000 (US$40), but can sometimes be found for as little as ¥2500 (US$20). With that said, the art of eating blowfish is somewhat more subtle than biting into a Big Mac, so trust me – spring for the better stuff. If you don’t choose to heed my advice, at least make sure that the chef’s license is prominently displayed in the restaurant.

(It should look something like this.)

Of course, even master chefs make mistakes from time to time – fictional or otherwise. In the Japanese smash hit and American cult classic Iron Chef (料理の鉄人), the last episode tragically ends when Chairman Kaga dies from fugu poisoning.

Accidents do happen.

Tune in tomorrow for the final installment in the three piece column on the subtle art of eating blowfish. At that time, I’ll share all of my favorite fugu recipes with all of you budding chefs out there in cyberspace. Bon appetite!

Check out the third and final installment of The Subtle Art of Eating Blowfish here.

** Special thanks to Flickr user itchys for their picture of the tora-fugu stamp **