Monday, March 17, 2008

Travelogue #30: Can Japanese Blowfish Kill You Deliciously?

ere I am, paying fifty dollars to eat a dead fish that just might kill me.

Welcome to Japan, where blowfish (fugu) is considered the swankest of delicacies, and where one ill-advised cut can leave an eater dizzy, numb-lipped, and six feet under. You see, the fish is flush with poison (tetrodotoxin) and chefs are required to gain a special license if they want to serve it. In 2006, David Nakamura of the Washington Post discovered, "Last year, 830 people applied for a fugu license in Tokyo...but only 500 of them passed the exam." In other words, that's 330 people who can blowfish you to the grave.

I hope I'm not chilling with one of them.

* picture courtesy of Yong Ho Cho

My friends and I sit folded-legged in a cozy blowfish joint nestled in a small alley by the Naka River in Fukuoka. We're the only customers, but we're not treated as such, no, we're treated more like a long-lost family who's finally come home. Hospitality comes in slabs of blowfish sashimi before we're even charged a cent. My friends lick their chopsticks clean, marveling at the unique texture of a fish that's somehow slippery and dry, with a curious flavor like that of transparent, edible stickers. Meanwhile, our waitress (who acts more like our grandmother) dabs a blowfish fin into a white cup of sake. VoliĆ : blowfish fin sake. In simpler terms, think of liquor...with a fishy aftertaste unfurling in your mouth like a blossom.

To be honest, I hadn't marked "blowfish" or "blowfish fin sake" on my Fukuoka trip itinerary, but hell, my friends were determined to do so, and when in Fukuoka, it's your prerogative to chow down on the quirkiest-looking fish in the sea.

Was it delicious? I wouldn't use that word. Was it unique, peculiar, and potentially fatal? Yes, yes, and yes. The taste of blowfish and its sake cousin is locked into my memory, and with only thirteen blowfish restaurants in the United States, I don't anticipate consuming the spiked wonder again anytime soon. And there we see the draw of flirting with rare foods: we gain a guaranteed memory of a specific, singularly tangible moment in our lives, something that can't be said for a hodgepodge of Wendy's memories. In the past ten years, I've eaten approximately 962 Spicy Chicken Fillets (that's an unscientific estimate). I don't remember every sandwich, though I will always remember #963.

It happened in Canal City, a multiple-story entertainment and shopping complex in Fukuoka. Minutes earlier, I was complaining to my friends about the dominance of McDonalds in Southeastern Asia and the utter lack of Wendy's. There are no Wendy's in Korea, and the situation in Fukuoka looked nearly as dire until -


Sweet Jesus, Hallelujah.

Less than twenty-four hours after we'd eaten blowfish, we packed the booth at a Wendy's that looked like any and every other on the globe: the navy blue-checkered carpet, the beige tables, the green-backed chairs, and the strictly Japanese customers. Yes. The other guys ordered nuggets and fries, and I didn't hesitate in asking for my Spicy Chicken Fillet. Biting into it was an experience simultaneously ordinary and surreal: ah, the familiar mayonnaise-slathered tomato diveting into the flaky chicken patty - it made me remember all those late-night drive-thrus on Poplar Avenue in Germantown, TN. I was back in the burger bubble, away from a world of blowfish and beyond, but I didn't feel all that sentimental leaving Wendy's. I was ready to go. The Spicy Chicken Fillet is the same and it will continue to be the same. My taste buds, however, are evolving.

But don't put a fancy handkerchief on me just yet, for tonight I'm anticipating a dinner at Sbarro. That's right, Sbarro Pizza.

Maybe it's not blowfish, but it sounds delicious.



Anonymous said...

I am blown away by your descripting writing skills.
Going to Wendy's now,to get rid of that blowfish aftertaste.I'll try one on Poplar Ave in Germantown.

Anonymous said...

I meant descriptive skills!!!

Anonymous said...

This piece seriously could give Anthony Bourdain a run for his money.

Steph said...

I LOVE Wendy's Spicy Chicken Fillet!! No Wendys to be found in London though, or Taco Bell's sadly...

Jes said...

Blowfish fin sake? *shudder* Someone should open a bar with meat cocktails only. I mean, the whole bacon vodka thing is really popular here.