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

This is the third and final installment in a three-part series on the subtle art of eating blowfish. If you’re new to the feature column ‘Big in Japan,’ be sure to check out Part I and Part II before reading below.

Still hungry for blowfish? Thought you might be.

Much like choosing a good pizza joint or a romantic spot to sip a cocktail, your fugu experience can vary depending on the restaurant. Excellent fugu will have you begging for a second plate. Poor fugu will have you gasping for your last breath.

Truth be told, most fugu-eating takes place at specialty restaurants, which are fairly easy to identify even in the urban jungle that is Japan.

(Case in point – you don’t have to speak Japanese to find this popular spot in Shibuya).

How do you know that a restaurant is serving fresh fugu? Simple.

Blowfish are kept alive in large aquariums prior to serving. If you ask politely, a chef will sometimes let you choose your fish, and then slice it up in front of you with a fugu-hiki (literally fugu-pulling; ふぐ引き), a specially designated knife that is only used for filleting blowfish. Think it’s annoying when someone leaves peanut butter on your butter knife? How about a splash of neurotoxin on your steak knife.

If you really want to sample the full culinary spectrum of fugu, you’re going to have to spend between ¥10,000 and ¥25,000 (US$80 to US$200). The centerpiece of this meal is fugu sashimi, which is usually extremely thinly sliced, and arranged in a decorative pattern on a porcelain plate. Although first-time consumers of fugu are surprised to discover that blowfish is rather tasteless compared to fish such as tuna or salmon, aficionados focus on the delicate texture and the elegant presentation.

Of course, a good fugu chef will dress up the dish with homemade soy sauce as well as a small dab of freshly grated wasabi to cleanse the palete and clear the sinuses. A great fugu chef will dress up the dish with a citrus-accented ponzu dipping sauce as well as a small dab of poison to numb the palette and clear the mind.

Accompaniments to fugu sashimi include a variety of blowfish organs and parts that you probably didn’t think were edible. Blowfish fins can be flash-fried in hot sesame oil, and then served in a carafe of hot sake. Blowfish skin can de-spiked, crisped over a hot flame and then sprinkled over a fresh salad of white radish and cucumber. Blowfish testicles can be eaten like grapes – although it’s something of an acquired taste, the flavor is reminiscent of salty milk. Delicious.

Well, that brings us to the end of the three-part series on the subtle art of eating blowfish. If I haven’t yet been able to get your mouth watering and your stomach growling, stay tuned as I’ve only just begun to unlock the vast treasure trove of Japanese cuisine.

** Special thanks to Flickr user schorschi_san for snapping the shot of the fugu restaurant near my apartment **