Every December, puffer fish get even, well, puffier, as they pack on fat to survive the chilly winter. And that's when we snatch them up and eat them.
In Japan, blowfish, puffer fish and globefish are all called fugu, and their meat is a delicacy available only during the winter months. The delicacy comes with a price, though, in more ways than one: Fugu is rare, and therefore expensive, and oh yeah, it could kill you.
Blowfish is generally considered the second-most poisonous vertebrate in the world (after the golden poison frog), and as such, chefs must be certified to slice and dice it. The poison is mostly found in the fish's organs -- especially the liver, eyes and ovaries -- and chefs must be careful to slice around these and not contaminate the knife with poisonous tetrodotoxin.
Chef Manabu Horiuchi (affectionately known as Hori) of Kata Robata is one of only about a dozen chefs in the U.S. certified to filet blowfish. Unfortunately, U.S. law does not allow whole blowfish to be delivered to restaurants, so Hori gets his fish already cleaned from purveyors on the east coast, even though he knows how to clean them himself.
Kata Robata just received some blowfish, and chef Hori will be preparing it for brave diners this week, while supplies last. Here's a sneak peek of what he'll be offering.
Next, Hori prepared the fugu meat by slicing it very thinly and dressing it in a ponzu sauce with momiji oroshi, a mixture of daikon radish with red chili peppers. It was difficult to discern the flavor of the fugu because it's so delicate, but the texture is somewhere between a white fish and tuna. It's dense and hearty like tuna, but less oily and more dependent upon the flavors of the food with which it's served.
The fourth course gave me the best indication of fugu's flavor profile. Fugu sashimi is often consumed in Japan, and it's responsible for the largest number of cases of poisoning. The sashimi helped me realize that fugu alone really isn't that flavorful. It tastes like an incredibly mild white fish. It's the momiji oroshi consumed with it, for instance, that makes it taste brighter. The fugu by itself is rather bland, which makes me wonder why it's such a delicacy in Japan.
Next, Hori served my favorite dish of the evening, which he says is not at all traditional. He seasoned chunks of fugu lightly with salt and pepper, pan-seared them, then spread them on a plate with a bit of uni, or sea urchin. Cooking fugu, in my opinion, brings out its flavor -- and paired with the buttery uni it's a wonderful taste of some of the most exotic foods the ocean has to offer.
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Finally, Hori brought out a soup he says he remembers from his childhood: A sizzling stone bowl filled with fugu broth, rice, egg and fugu meat. It's a simple dish, almost gruel-like, but divine in its modesty. It's my idea of Japanese comfort food -- if one were a very wealthy person seeking comfort, that is.
Consider this week a special occasion, friends, because the fugu is around for a limited time only. Generally, Kata Robata sells out of the poisonous fish a short time after it goes on the menu. Call ahead to make sure they still have it, then call your friends and tell them you love them.
Don't worry, Hori is a master at filleting the deadly fish. There's absolutely no danger in consuming it. But what's the harm in making your friends squirm a little?