An Acquired Taste of Japan – Fugu

Tetrodotoxin.

Sound appetizing?

It’s the fatal poison found in the liver, intestines and ovaries of the fugu, or pufferfish. An incredible delicacy, fugu is our feature in this month’s Acquired Taste of Japan, and we’re excited to (virtually) explore the ins-and-outs of this fish.

Fugu are bony fish, ranging from pygmy sizes weighing a few grams, to medium five-pound fish to large ones weighing as much as 20 pounds. These fish are part of the Tetraodontidae and Diodontidae family of fish, known for their ability to intake a large quantity of water and “blow up” in order to deter predators. They eat starfish, mollusks, snails and other sea creatures that contain vibrio bacteria, which creates tetrodotoxin, and poison from these creatures becomes concentrated and stored in the liver, reproductive organs, intestines and skin of the fish.

The concentrated poison found in fugu is called tetrodotoxin and is 1,000 times more toxic than cyanide. It is flavorless, odorless, heat stable and deadly in incredibly small amounts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that “the consumption of toxic amounts of tetrodotoxin results primarily in neurologic and gastrointestinal signs and symptoms. In severe poisoning, dysrhythmia, hypotension, and even death might occur. If a rapid onset of one of the following neurologic and gastrointestinal signs or symptoms occurs, the clinical description for tetrodotoxin poisoning has been met: 1) oral paresthesias (might progress to include the arms and legs), 2) cranial nerve dysfunction, 3) weakness (might progress to paralysis), or 4) nausea or vomiting.”

A small fugu

And there is no antidote.

Thankfully, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Japan along with trained and licensed chefs know how to prepare fugu’s many delicious parts. The Ministry publishes regulations governing the sale and preparation of 22 of the hundreds of species of fugu for all of Japan, and even controls the export of fugu to other countries like the United States. Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture is the main distribution center for fugu as it is shipped throughout Japan and the world.

Fugu is typically enjoyed in winter, when the fish have fattened up to brave the cold waters surrounding Japan. Torafugu, the most commonly enjoyed variety of the fish, is generally served as paper-thin, translucent slices of sashimi, arranged in the shape of a chrysanthemum and garnished with daikon and negi onions and dipped in ponzu sauce. Because it is a delicacy served in winter time, hearty, moist chunks of fugu are also served in hotpot dishes called nabe. Fried fugu is eaten along with the fish’s milt, the shirako we wrote about last month. And the tail fin and mouth parts are often roasted and added to hot sake, imparting a light ocean-like flavor. New dishes like fugu burgers are even on the market!

Fugu hot pot nabe

Fugu has been traditionally eaten in Japan for over 2,000 years. Archaeological excavations from the Jomon culture (10,500 – 300 BC) have unearthed fugu teeth fossils from midden heaps. The first restrictions on fugu consumption arose during the Sengoku period (1467-1603 AD), when the warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi prohibited eating the fish in order to prevent his troops from being poisoned. During subsequent periods in Japan’s history, the fish was either enjoyed publicly or banned and eaten in secret. Fugu is one of the few foods the Emperor of Japan is strictly prohibited from eating. Today, aquaculturists have begun experimental farming to develop potentially toxin-free species of fugu, in order to enable more people to enjoy it, without worrying about the poisonous livers and eggs, parts said to be especially delicious.

Today, gourmet torafugu is enjoyed at restaurants at the cost of around US$200 per entrée! Chefs are trained for three years and must pass an exam in order to be allowed to prepare fugu. More reasonably priced mafugu can be purchased at fish markets by licensed buyers, who then sell it to the general public in supermarkets.

Would you eat fugu? Are you brave enough to try it? Have you already had it? Share your experience with us!

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Shirako

Shirako, called milt in English, are the seminal vessels typically harvested from cod, and sometimes from anglerfish, salmon, squid and pufferfish. The harvested sperm sacs are tube-like in shape, usually white or light pink in color, with the layout and consistency of brains. Shirako translates into “white children” in Japanese.

It’s served in multiple ways, raw, fried, steamed, and as a topping in other dishes. When served raw, the shirako is doused in ponzu and garnished with grated daikon, shiso or finely chopped scallions. In this form, the shirako has a mild, creamy texture with a taste like the freshest seafood from the ocean. Shirako is also served steamed, sometimes incorporated into chawanmushi, an egg and seafood custard, and other times served on its own. More popular ways to eat shirako include tempura-fried, pan-fried or grilled yakimono style. When cooked in these ways, the shirako becomes firm and defined on the outside and custard-like on the inside. Shirako can also be added to nabe, or hotpots, and as part of gunkanmaki, or battleship sushi, where it fills a depression created on rice with a nori wrap.

Gunkanmaki sushi with shirako

Shirako is harvested in winter along the cold waters of the Sea of Japan. It’s typically enjoyed as pub food at izakaya and sushi bars, with an alcoholic beverage. It can also be found at street food stalls in major markets around Japan, like the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. A popular version of shirako is when it’s served as part of a seafood mix, raw or barely charred, on the half-shell!

As an acquired taste, shirako is probably more easily tried than some of the other foods we’ve explored! But for those who love caviar or Russian moloka, shirako is a great variation on these kinds of foods.

Have you had shirako before? If so, tell us about your experience!

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Shiokara

Did you enjoy our post last month? If not, this month’s exploration about an Acquired Taste of Japan might be more appetizing for us less adventurous eaters!

We’re diving into one of Japan’s traditional foods, shiokara. It’s known as “chinmi” or “a rare taste”, and once you learn more about it, you’ll be intrigued as well. Shiokara are seafood fermented in their own viscera, salted and seasoned. The most common shiokara, called ika no shiokara, is made from small squid that are plentifully available off the coast of Japan. Shiokara can also be made from tuna (“shuto”), crab (“ganzuke”), salmon (“mefun”) and sweetfish (“uruka”). Each type is a mix of salt, viscera found in the main body cavity such as the liver or intestines, and more fleshy tissue. Depending on the cook’s preferences, shichimi pepper, wasabi, mirin or grated yuzu peel are also added to the mixture for zest and flavor. But traditional shiokara is simply salt and seafood.

Ika no shiokara

Shiokara, especially ika no shiokara, is said to have become a popular dish in the 11th century as a source of protein, fats and vitamin D during winter months when food was scarce. The entire fermentation process took between a week to ten days, so shiokara could be replenished easily. Primarily eaten with rice, a small but complete meal could be had.

In modern times, shiokara is served at many izakaya or Japanese pubs. A small bite of ika no shiokara makes sake taste great! And the saltiness definitely makes you want to drink more of it!

Making ika no shiokara is straightforward, although it does require quite a few steps. We found this recipe requiring nothing by salt and squid. If you try it out, let us know how your preparation tastes! And if you don’t feel like making it yourself, then definitely give it a go at your nearest Japanese pub.

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Inago and Hachinoko!

Natto is an acquired taste. Fermented fish, fungi and vegetables are acquired tastes. But eating insects? Now that is a truly unique experience for much of the world!

Japan shares a heritage with other Asian countries where certain insects are eaten as a nutritious food source. There are a few common types of insects eaten in Japan including inago (rice grasshoppers) and hachinoko (wasp or bee larvae). Eating these insects has a long tradition, especially in Gifu and Nagano Prefectures which are located in the mountainous regions where fish were not abundant, and livestock was limited. These particular edibles are known to provide beneficial fat, protein and B vitamins.

Hachinoko

In lean times, inago and hachinoko supplemented many people’s diets, especially during their harvest in the cold months of winter and after the devastation of World War II. Following the mid-1900’s, when industrial pest control became more prevalent and when high-quality food was substantially available to the general population, the tradition of consuming inago and hachinoko lost favor. Today, consuming both of these insects is enjoying a resurgence, as they are readily available in packaged form and as artisanal chefs are looking at them as a sustainable and delicious food source.

Inago prepared as tsukudani, a traditional way of cooking with soy sauce, sugar, and sake, make crunchy snacks. They are often enjoyed with beer, sake or tea and as side dishes accompanying more traditional main dishes. Connoisseurs find inago have a mild, nutty flavor. Similarly prepared as tsukudani, hachinoko are softer and can be served with rice in dishes called hachinoko gohan and hebo gohemochi.

Inago

Both inago and hachinoko can be found online, at retailers, and sometimes even in vending machines in Japan. But the best place to eat them are at matsuri, or festivals, specifically celebrating these cultural traditions. In November, the Kushihara Hebo Matsuri held in Ena, Gifu Prefecture, hosts a competition among beekeepers as to who can cultivate and harvest the most hachinoko. The competitors show off their harvesting skills and ultimately, sell the fresh larvae to festival-goers. Plus, street food vendors make the best hachinoko dishes! The Tokyo Bug Eating Club is the place to sample inago, and they have events throughout the season where one can catch, cook and consume the grasshoppers.

No matter where you get them, we’d love to hear your story about the first time you sampled inago or hachinoko. Be sure to share it with us. And happy crunching!

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Kusaya!

The tradition of eating fermented fish spans cultures from Scandinavia to Europe to Asia. We know of famous examples like garum, from ancient Rome, where small local fish were salted and fermented until they almost liquified. And of the famous Swedish surströmming, where Baltic herring are caught in the spring time, lightly salted and fermented in barrels for months.

Japan’s rich food culture, which prizes fish in all of its varieties, is famous for kusaya, a fermented, dried fish that has a mild taste but a most-definitely acquired smell!

Kusaya is made from small flying fish or mackerel. When made using traditional methods, the freshly caught fish is descaled by hand and then flayed open. The bones, entrails and blood are removed, and the inside of the fish is scrubbed many times in fresh water to remove any remnants. The opened fish is then soaked in a salt brine called “kusaya-jiru” for about 24 hours, then dried in the open air and hot sun for up to two days, before it’s stored in jars. Kusaya is unique in that the brine used to begin the fermentation process is the key to preserving the fish. Every family that makes kusaya in a traditional fashion closely guards their brine recipe. The brines are made of water and small amounts of salt to begin with, then reused for each batch of fish, with some brines lasting as long as 100 years! The brine smells of decay, similar to feces, and an overgrowth of bacteria, lending kusaya the aroma that many who have not grown up with this dish find hard to tolerate.

Fermenting fish is a wonderful way to preserve it and to augment and release the umami in the flesh. The fermentation process for kusaya uses the microorganisms in the salt brine to release glutamates from the proteins, sugars and fats in the fish’s meat. These glutamates are the building blocks of umami, the fifth taste in Japanese food culture, and a building block of dashi. Many Japanese eat kusaya with sake or other alcoholic beverages, as it is high in protein and calcium and pairs well with sharper flavors.

Kusaya can be purchased almost anywhere in Japan, most generally in canned or packaged form. But if you’re lucky enough to visit a traditional kusaya maker, overrule the smell around you and try this delicacy!

And don’t forget to share your story with us!