Some of you might be wondering why on earth anyone would eat anything that could potentially kill them. Granted the chance of dying from eating Fugu is incredibly small but…c’mon, chicken won’t kill you, why not just eat chicken? Well, why would you drive a F1 car rather than a Corolla? Why base jump instead of taking the elevator? Why street luge when you could…uh…walk? Because it’s fun, dammit. Of course, all those things are probably many times more dangerous than eating a poisonous fish. Danger may not be my middle name but I’d like to think I’m adventurous when it comes to food.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with what fugu is, it’s the Japanese word for pufferfish. Pufferfish is a delicacy in Japan despite the fact that the liver, ovaries and skin contain a deadly, paralyzing toxin that is hundreds or thousands of times more potent than, say, cyanide. In fact, the poison is strong enough to withstand extreme heat and must be disposed of much like nuclear waste as it can’t be burned. As it is incredibly lethal when not prepared properly and there is no known antidote for the poison, only highly trained and licensed chefs are allowed to serve fugu. While not all restaurants will taste the same, they are probably all equally safe as getting a fugu license involves strict regulations. I also hear that recently there has been a way of farming non-poisonous fugu but…where’s the fun in that?
Torafugutei (5-6 Maruyama-cho, Shibuya-ku. 03-3462-7929), the restaurant I chose, has several locations around Tokyo and, like most places that serve fugu, they only serve pufferfish dishes. It’s not difficult to find. From the Hachiko exit of Shibuya station, walk toward the large 109 (not 109-2) department store. Walk along the street on the left side of 109 until you hit a small restaurant with a giant pufferfish mascot as a sign and a big tank full of the little poisonous bastards swimming around. The food is really fresh, as you’ll find out below.
Ideally, you’d want to go for fugu during the winter, when the fish is most in season and the poison levels are lowest. However, I was sure I wasn’t going to be back in Japan for awhile and perhaps not during the winter so I went and tried it anyways. My friend Christine was adventurous enough come with me for a meal that could potentially be our last.
Torafugutei is quite traditional looking on the inside with mostly private room tables with tatami mats that require you to remove your shoes. Our servers were incredibly attentive but that was probably because it was a slow night and we were one of few occupied tables.
We both went for the Torafugu course, which is pretty much all inclusive and a decent deal at 4980Y (about $50). The Torafugu course consists five courses plus dessert. Our starter is Kawasashi, a sashimi of pufferfish skin, which I forgot to take a picture of. The sashimi is served with a sunomono, which is cold noodles in sort of vinegar dressing. Quite interesting and refreshing. The skin pieces are very chewy, a bit like marinated jellyfish.
The second dish is Tessa, pufferfish sashimi served with leeks and ponzu sauce. You wrap the leek with the paper thin (they’re transparent!) slices of fish and dip it into the ponzu/sudachi mix. Some people find pufferfish sashimi to be rather bland but it does have a subtle flavor and a chewy texture. Quite a unique experience for raw fish. The leeks and ponzu give the normally light tasting fish a very strong aroma and flavor. A really good fugu chef will slice very close to the poisonous bits so eating the sashimi will give you a slight tingle that’s very interesting…if you’re not too freaked out. I hear a very, very small amount can cause a mild euphoria. Remember, tingle…not burn. If it burns…uh…
The main course is a pufferfish paper hot pot. I’ve eaten hot pot dishes many times but never in a paper “pot”. Your server comes in and places what looks like a coffee filter in the middle of your table with a metal ring on top and pours water in it. Don’t worry, it won’t leak.
Then comes a large dish of fresh puffer fish pieces…so fresh that ours was still moving!
While our hot pot boiled away, we got our fourth course, pufferfish karage or fried pufferfish. I hate to describe things like this but we both agreed the texture was a lot like chicken. Seriously! The meat peels away much like a piece of chicken breast. Of all the ways of eating fugu, we enjoyed this the best. The meat is light and flavorful when cooked.
You get two different types of meat in the hot pot. Large chunks and thin slices. The large ones need about six minutes while the thin slices cook in seconds. You don’t want to undercook this stuff but overcooking it would probably ruin the meat. Like the karage, the meat in the hot pot has the texture of a moist chicken breast. You also get a mountain of various veggies with your hot pot.
After you’re finished with the hot pot, your server comes in with several different ingredients to make fugu porridge. He clears the remaining bits from the soup and then pours in a few bowls of rice and eggs, resulting in a sort of congee or rice porridge.
The fish’s flavor and vegetables are quite prominent in the porridge and is a great way to finish your fugu experience.
One other thing on the menu caught my eye and I couldn’t resist ordering it: hirezake or hot sake with dried pufferfish tails. I usually try to stay away from hot sake as sake is only heated when it isn’t great quality sake.
…and I was quite right. This wasn’t particularly good. The dried tails have a very strong flavor and almost overwhelms the sake if you can believe that. Christine didn’t want to finish hers as we both agreed it wasn’t very good. I drank the rest of mine as a shot…which didn’t make it any better.
For dessert, we got an excellent peach ice cream.
The meal with two Torafugu courses, a couple hirezake and a few beers was about $150. Not a bad price for a fun meal and experiencing one of the most unique foods in the world.