Life in Japan, from sushi’s perspective

In Japan, conveyor belt sushi, or kaiten-zushi, is the equivalent of a burger joint or taco stand: a cheap, quick dining option for people from all walks of life. At kaiten-zushi establishments, small plates of sushi, sashimi, and other Japanese specialties are placed on a rotating conveyor belt. Diners select multiple plates to make themselves a meal, and the bill is tallied at the end based on how many and what kinds of plates were consumed.

The conveyor belt can also have additional uses, as this travel video recently posted to YouTube shows. In it, a group of Western tourists places a digital video camera on the kaiten-zushi rotating conveyor belt in an unnamed restaurant in Japan. The camera makes its way around the room, capturing the atmosphere of the restaurant and earning smiles, laughter, and curious glances from its patrons and staff. The video, simple in its capture, offers a rare glimpse at everyday life in Japan, from sushi’s perspective.

I Survived a Japanese Game Show: Round three. Back on track

When traveling time zones, it’s a good idea to remember that TV schedules change. When I sat down to watch the 3rd episode of “I Survived a Japanese Game Show,” in St. Cloud, Minnesota where were were visiting friends on our way to Montana, I forgot it was Central Time.

The show comes on ABC at 8:00 p.m. in St. Cloud and not at 9:00 like in Columbus. The show had just ended. We proceeded to watch the sunset and drink wine.

Watching online a day later in Bismarck, North Dakota at the Seven Seas Best Western was just as entertaining. To catch you up for tonight, here’s the recap. If you can’t head to Japan any time soon, here’s one way to feel like you’re there in an unusual sort of way.

What I liked so much during the first episode is back. There was more about Japan and the contestants reactions to being in the country. Everyone loves being in Japan.

There was also more footage about what it’s like to be on a Japanese game show. Less time was spent on the contestants’ chatter about their strategies to win, therefore the bickering was minimal which left more time for more interesting footage.

Another positive change in round three was Mamasan’s increased TV time. I particularly liked observing the contestants reactions to her. The hugs, the thank-yous, the being ever so polite, even when served a gritty version of green tea that isn’t what one likes is so typical of trying to be a gracious guest in another country.

“Good?” said Mamasan. Not exactly, but they drank it.

This episode drew me in for other reasons as well. I loved the behind the scene details that showed how the game show is put together and the crews’ reactions to the Americans.

“What’s that noise?,” one person asked from the control room before the contestants came out for the first game, “Pedal Fast, Big Splash.” The contestants were in the green room getting pumped up.

“They’re screaming.”

“Too much green tea,” said another.

When host Rome Kanda shouted, “Let’s go Americans! Come on out!”, the crowd did their normal going wild routine with their stash of noise makers as the Americans waved enthusiastically, bounding through the door. All seemed happy to be involved with this crazy completion.

“We don’t care who wins, said Kanda, “as long as someone gets wet.”

“With Pedal Fast, Big Splash,” there’s no way to avoid getting wet if you’re the person on the tricycle. No matter how fast two team members pedaled their bicycles to slow down the treadmill, the tricycle rider couldn’t keep up and eventually went backwards into the pool of ice-water.

The Yellow Penguins won by four seconds which meant the Green Monkeys became rice farmers for a day for losing. The Yellow Penguins were given a tour of Tsukiji Fish Market for winning.

Rice farming is not easy. Watching the Green Monkeys slog through muck in an attempt to plant rice reminded me of why I’m astounded that rice is not more expensive.

The Tsukiji Fish Market is as large as several airplane hangers and the place where 4,000,000 fish are sold a day. The Yellow Penguins loved the tour and proved that one doesn’t need a lot of pomp and circumstance to have a great time traveling. Any time one can learn something new is a bonus. As Andrew said, “This was a once in a life experience.”

As a testament to trying new things when traveling, Cathy, known for being a picky eater tried the tuna sashimi. And just like what often happens when trying new things with an open mind, she found out she liked it and downed another piece.

The next day, back in the studio for the elimination round, Darcy and Meaghan dressed up in suits covered with Velcro strips in order to hurl themselves at a wall in an attempt to match shape outlines that looked similar to what is drawn at crime scenes.

The hurling involved bouncing on a trampoline. Meaghan nailed the task all three times. This time Darcy’s lost on a positive note. As she pointed out after the men in black suits carried her out of the studio, she’s the only contestant to have played every game. Even though she didn’t survive a Japanese game show, she sure knows how one is played.

The previews for tonight’s show look excellent. The contestants seem to have decided to just have fun more than anything, except for Meaghan who thinks she’s on “Survivor.” What was the deal with walking around in a bath towel?

Now all I have to do is figure out where I’m going to watch the show tonight. We’re without a TV since we are staying with friends in Montana who don’t have one. There’s the online version that shows up about a day later.

Photos are from the gameshow Web site gallery.

Blowfish sold as salmon kills 15, sickens over a hundred

As a frightening aside to my Big in Japan column on the subtle art of eating blowfish, MSNBC reported today that over the last three years, fugu meat that has been passed off as salmon in Thai markets has resulted in 15 deaths and over a hundred cases of food-poisoning.

As a result of a nationwide ban in Thailand on the selling of blowfish meat, some rather unscrupulous fishermen have taken to the practice of dying fugu and passing it off as salmon. The issue was brought to light following a report issued by Dr. Narin Hiransuthikul at Bangkok’s Chulalonkorn University Hospital.

As a warning to anyone travelling in Thailand, it’s probably best to skip on the salmon spring rolls!

** Photo by Flickr user Howdy, I’m H. Michael Karshis **

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 **

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 **