A Visit to a Seaside Inn and Pufferfish Farm
BY JOSHUA BEWIG
What are the risks of consuming this odd, exotic fish? And is the flavor worth it? In this article we visit a fugu farm, where we get to feed these adorable sea creatures before sitting down to devour one ourselves. We’ll also learn all about the elusive pufferfish from a genuine fugu farmer – Shimojo-san – owner of the fugu restaurant and inn that shares his name .
We push off from the pier of Ano - a fishing village in Obama, Fukui - on a fine spring day, our boat plowing a path through the shimmering waves. No sooner have I found my sea legs than we arrive at a grid of floating docks anchored in Yashiro Bay. Here the nets are strung that keep the fugu corralled in.
Shimojo-san wedges his boat between two docks and climbs onto a narrow plank that spans one of the nets. The fugu, knowing they are about to be fed, gleefully swim to the surface and circle around like hungry sharks.
Beware of Fish
Balanced on his plank, Shimojo-san scatters feed as though he were sowing seeds, making sure every fish gets a fair share. Fugu, he explains, are territorial and can be aggressive. For this reason, their teeth must be cut to prevent them from biting and injuring each other. This is probably the hardest part of his job, he admits. One can only imagine how difficult it must be to hold a gasping, squirming fugu still while you cut its teeth out.
Fugu are also susceptible to parasites. To remove them, the fish are placed in fresh water, one-by-one, for about 20 minutes each. Furthermore, the large nets that hold them must be hauled out and mended monthly, as they decompose quickly in the salt water. Fugu farming is not for the faint of heart, it would appear.
Finally, the mature fugu, which is ready to eat after about two years, must be prepared by a certified chef. Obtaining a license requires at least two years of training followed by an exam, which a third of the applicants fail.
According to Savor Japan, fugu contains a highly toxic poison in its organs called tetrodotoxin. Despite this fact, the Japanese have been indulging in this deadly delicacy for centuries. And, until its proper preparation was finally perfected, its consumption resulted in many casualties. It was even banned from around 1570 to 1870.
Today pufferfish is readily available in restaurants, inns and supermarkets, and the risk is negligible if prepared by a licensed expert. But why would the gourmets of old risk their lives just to eat an inflatable fish?
Aside from the thrill of courting danger, fugu is a protein-rich fish with a unique, subtle flavor and chewy texture. It was once considered a rare delicacy and reserved for the upper classes. Today, thanks to farmers like Shimojo-san, fugu is more widely available. It’s still not cheap, however. A full dinner course will set you back around a hundred US dollars per person, and will include many, if not all, of the following dishes.
Because the flesh of fugu is chewier than other fish, sashimi is sliced paper-thin. The slices are then artfully arranged in a circle to resemble a chrysanthemum – which also happens to be a symbol for death. Hmmm…
Tecchiri is a type of nabe – or Japanese hot pot. Chunks of fugu meat are simmered alongside tofu, mushrooms and other vegetables in a dashi broth and served with ponzu sauce. This is perhaps the most accessible option for newbies.
Sumi is Japanese for charcoal, and sumibiyaki is to grill something over a charcoal fire. Fugu cooked in this way has a rich, smoky flavor.
Similar to tori karaage (fried chicken), fugu karaage is marinated in sake, soy sauce, garlic and ginger, then coated in potato starch and deep fried.
Known in English as “milt”, shirako is the male fish genitalia containing sperm. Milt of cod, anko, salmon and squid are also considered to be delicacies in Japan. Fugo shirako is highly regarded for its rich creaminess and more subtle flavor.
Fugu ojiya is a kind of zosui, or Japanese rice porridge. It is often made by adding some of the remaining nabe to a bowl of rice towards the end of a meal.
For sake lovers. Hire (pronounced heerei) are the fins of a fish. Fugu hire is browned over charcoal and placed in a cup of hot sake as an infusion. This adds a subtle smoky, fugu flavor to an otherwise ordinary sake.
Tempted to take your chances on a feast of fugu? Leave me a note in the contact form if you need help making a reservation in a beautiful seaside inn like Shimojo.