Number 46: Fugu

29 Dec

I could have died last night.  No, seriously, I could have died.  Last night I had fugu, which is highly poisonous Japanese blowfish.  If prepared incorrectly, fugu can cause paralysis and eventual death by asphyxiation in the person who eats it. So why did I decide to play seafood Russian roulette?  For you.  Yes, you.  Ok, and a little for me.

There are all sorts of crazy rules and restrictions surrounding fugu.  For a chef to be able to work with fugu, they need to have special training and certification, so special that I believe there are only 17 chefs in the U.S. who have it.  Chef Toyoji Hemmi of Chicago’s Ai Japanese Restaurant & Lounge is the only chef in the Midwest who has this certification.

Before fugu can even enter the United States, it must go through a detoxification process in Japan.  A licensed chef will prepare the fish by removing the poisonous parts (in 30 steps, mind you), then they take the poisonous parts, lock them away, then put them in an incinerator at the end of the day.  So before fugu is even sent to America, it is safe.  Then, the American fugu chef, I’m assuming, does another once over and prepares the fugu how he sees fit.  There are also restrictions on how much fugu can be shipped to the U.S. and Ai Restaurant only has a limited quantity of fugu for a couple months out of the year.  I was lucky to have caught them at the right time!

So let’s get down to it.  Last night, Dan and I went to Ai with our friends Patrick and Brittany.  We had to pre-order our fugu dishes 48 hours in advance and put down our credit card info in advance, as well.  Serious business.  When we got there, they had a $5 martini deal going on, so we each decided to indulge.  I mean, if you’re going to die, you may as well have a tasty martini beforehand.  We toasted to our possible deaths and then got to ordering our food.

Dan and I had pre-ordered the Fugu Nabe, which Ai describes as “fugu, monkfish, Japanese watercress, Tokyo onions, shiitake mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, shimeji mushrooms, tofu, soybean cake, potato noodles, daikon, carrots, and yuzu, all in a hot pot and served with a ponzu dipping sauce.”  Patrick and Brittany had pre-ordered the Fugu Usuzukuri, which is “fugu sashimi with boiled fugu skin, served with ponzu sauce”  Dan and I also ordered a ridiculously tasty beef teriyaki bento box and Patrick and Brittany ordered a couple of maki rolls. Let’s take a quick look at all that, just because it’s pretty!

The first fugu dish that they brought out was the Fugu sashimi that Patrick and Brittany had ordered (pictured below).  Dan and I watched nervously as they each took a bite.  They were both pretty unimpressed by the flavor of the fugu on its own – Patrick described it as “very fishy” – but they seemed to enjoy it dipped into the ponzu sauce.  The plate also had a few pieces of “fugu jelly” (fugu skin in a square of gelatin) on it.  Patrick and Brittany simultaneously took a bite and almost simultaneously puked.  I, being a weirdo, was intrigued by their reaction and demanded to try some, too.  I almost puked, as well.  Fish jello = not good.  The texture is enough to make you cry.  After the plate of food was gone, we all quietly waited to see if anyone would drop dead.  Nobody did.  Yet.
After that, the waiter brought out the maki and the bento box and we ate ourselves silly.  When our table was cleared once again, the waiter walked up with a little gas stove and plopped it on the table.  He turned it on and began to heat up a large bowl full of miso soup.  This, apparently, was the start of the Fugu Nabe hot pot process.

After the soup was sufficiently heated up, he put the fugu into the pot, bones and all, and disappeared for a few minutes.

When he came back the next time, he was carrying a big bowl of goodies (check out the very first photo in this post). All the veggies, monkfish, and tofu were in there.  He put it all into the pot, let it cook for about five minutes, then he gave us the go-ahead to serve ourselves.

Even though the dish was a kind of stew, the waiter told us that the proper way to eat it was to take it and dip it into the ponzu sauce.  Interesting.  I filled up my plate with a little bit of everything and was ready to go.  The crazy-looking whitish thing on the left is fugu (with lots of bone).

My first bite of fugu was pretty unimpressive.  While it was nice and tender, it tasted like plain old fleshy whitefish, and picking it off the bone wasn’t particularly enjoyable, either.  The ponzu sauce made it much tastier, though.  The rest of the dish was really yummy when dipped in the sauce, as well, and the whole process of cooking it at the table was fun.  I found the monkfish a bit spongy, but maybe that’s how monkfish is supposed to taste?  By the way, monkfish are terrifying little bastards.  Just look at ’em!  Never mind the fugu- I can’t believe I ate that!

I think the risk of eating fugu, not the flavor, is what causes people to seek it out.  I mean, you can have whitefish any day of the week, but when do you get to eat imported and possibly lethal whitefish?  Some people who try fugu report a bit of numbness in their lips due to traces of poison, but none of us experienced anything like that.  I’m kind of glad, because I probably would have freaked out and rushed myself to the hospital.  All I care about is that we all lived to tell the tale, although we did leave a couple hundred dollars poorer.  I will end this post with some horribly embarrassing and ridiculous photos that Brittany made me pose for.


6 Responses to “Number 46: Fugu”

  1. IntenseGuy December 29, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    Well, thank you – for braving a horrid death to bring this fascinating account to us.

    Monkfish sure looks scary – I’m sure SpongeBob Squarepants would be frightened silly by one. Given your review – the restaurant sounds like a place to go to when in Chicago (even if one doesn’t get Fugu).

    You handle your chopsticks well – I like that photo.

  2. Judy December 29, 2011 at 7:17 pm #

    I”m so glad that you lived to tell the tale. I would have hated to have our last celebration be Christmas! Keep on blogging!

  3. Kelly @ Dare to be Domestic December 30, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    HOLY BRAVENESS BATMAN!!! Well done. It made me feel better reading that by the time it hits the States it’s been taken care of with the poison but still I’d be freaked out!

  4. Allison @ PickyEatingRD January 1, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

    I would be one of those people who would avoid it at all costs haha. I didn’t even know something like fugu even existed!

  5. Bridget January 10, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

    That sounds like a fascinating adventure! And I love the pictures of you! I’m glad you lived to tell the tale too. Nothing worse than death by seafood.

  6. Becki D. February 1, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    Nuh uh. Nooo way.

    And one of these days, you’re gonna have to share your secrets to being a major foodie, and still be incredibly tiny.

    Punk. 😛

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