|Fuguzaku in bowl on right. Fried oysters left.|
The other day, for my birthday, Echosquirrel brought me to a restaurant here in Niihama which specializes in preparing a local dish made from puffer fish called fuguzaku.
Fugu has the distinction of being perhaps the most dangerous of dangerous eats. Even watchers of the Simpsons know about this fish — its entry into the pop cultural lexicon probably means that I'm in as much danger of dying from consuming it as someone living on the Tex-Mex border is of getting incapacitated from a killer bee sting.
Don't get me wrong, people do die from consuming fugu. But people die or get maimed from doing lots of much dumber and riskier things. Just check out the Darwin awards or watch an episode of Jackass if you're not convinced.
The main danger of fugu comes from a tetrodotoxin contained in the liver and other organs which must be carefully removed by a trained and licensed master. Watching the fervor with which Japanese separate and clean their trash before bringing it to the curb, I'm not too much concerned that the fellow preparing my dish in the back is rocking out to Poetic Assassin with a spliff burning at his elbow.
And fugu has been around a long time. Even way back in the 18th century, the Edo period haiku poet Yosa Buson was well aware of the danger:
blowfish soup? still breathing, waking from sleep
I know the feeling Buson is describing. There have been times when, after having tried a wild-harvested mushroom for the first time, that I've woken in the middle of the night with slight intestinal discomfort, thinking that I had poisoned myself, that I was going to die at a comparatively young age without having said goodbye to anyone or cleaned all of my underwear or anything. And then the sweet relief in the morning when you open your eyes and you're alive and your skin's not blue or green and there are birds chirping outside your window and a fresh pot of coffee is just waiting to be brewed.
Buson's haiku goes a little deeper than that — when the fugu is being prepared and the master has cut the fish's head off it looks as if it comes to life, breathing (video here, about 25 seconds in) breathing a second life into the haiku itself.
Anyway, though we had of course both heard of fugu, we had never heard of this particular dish, so we were curious to know how it was prepared. (You can watch a video of the preparation in Japanese here.) As far as we could tell from the proprietress's description and the subsequent delivery, our "soup" consisted of pieces of the famed fugu meat as well as the skin; also some strong sliced onions both red and white; what looked to be a grated daikon/carrot mix (but which we later found to be a black tea/grated daikon mix), and a liberal sprinkling of green onions; all bathed in a ponzu sauce for a decidedly tart and aggressive dish which we weren't entirely sure warranted the relatively high price tag.
After finishing the sashimi and the fuguzaku and the fried oysters and a bowl of rice each, we were still a little hungry. A quick discussion and it was decided — no second fuguzaku — we'd have another round of the good old American-style oysters instead.