January 6, 2015

Finding Fugu

If you are not familar with “Fugu”, it’s the Japanese for blowfish or puffer fish. To describe it as poisonous is a massive understatement. Chefs need a licence to serve it in Japan and they are trained for two years to learn how to correctly remove the deadly bits. Some deliberately leave just a trace of the toxin in the dish so that your lips tingle when you eat it!

Wikipedia suggests that its poison is 1200 times stronger than cyanide and close to Sarin or VX gas in the way it paralyses your central nervous system. You can’t buy a pufferfish as it is illegal to prepare one without the licence, hence they tend to be kept alive in tanks at special fugu restaurants.

I met up this morning with Yuka, my guide and fixer in Tokyo. Our first port of call is the Tsukiji fish market. It’s a huge and busy place selling 10% of the world’s fish every day. The prices of some of the fish are extraordinary, but still much cheaper on a kilo basis than at my local supermarket. There are not many tourists here as groups are not allowed into the wholesale part of the market, and I can see why with all that’s going on. (In passing, the whole market is being relocated prior to the Japan Olympic Games, so this spectacle may not be on offer for much longer).

Long cutting swords are an essential tool in the fish mongers arsenal. After a decade of fastidious sharpening they are several inches shorter though. Every famous restaurant has a local supplier here, many specialising in certain types of fish or fishy bits. And ninja snapper turtles..

After the market its time to taste some incredibly fresh sushi. It hasn’t even had to travel more than a couple of hundred metres from the market.

I’m immediately struck by some great sushi bar etiquette. All the staff literally all shout a greeting to every new customer, it’s kind of a lucky tradition and makes you think at first that you might not be properly dressed or have accidentally left the door open – but once you know, you certainly feel very welcome!

I try all the main sorts of nigiri (except smoked eel – I have never been a fan..). It’s got an incredible “melt in your mouth” feel, simply stunning. The chefs are great too – you can interact with them as you eat the nigiri that they carefully prepare, piece by piece. Until today I had no idea that wasabi was a root vegetable.

The day finishes with some sake tasting. I know so little about sake and its hard to know where to start. Hot? Cold? Pasteurised? Fresh? Which season?.. Diving in, we try three very different brands. Time to sweep away my memories of hot and tasteless sake in English Chinese restaurants in the 1980’s – this stuff is like fine wine.. Some of it with prices to match.

I’m going to look out for some good sake to put in my cellar when I get home. I didn’t have time for any official Japanese whisky tasting, but that’s now on my radar too..

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